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What ‘Ghosting’ Says About The Job Market

ghost ornament in focus with trick or treaters blurred in the background.

Recruiters and employers have reported that increasing numbers of job seekers, and even new employees, are vanishing into thin air. This phenomenon may be spooky for those in charge of hiring, but it is good news about the state of the labor market and the broader economy.

“Ghosting,” a term once mainly used to describe inconsiderate romantic partners, has become an increasingly prevalent problem for recruiters and human resources departments. Both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have recently reported on increasing numbers of job candidates and employees who simply vanish without a word and won’t return subsequent calls or messages.

The nation continues to enjoy historically low unemployment – 3.9 percent, as of December. While certain industries and geographic areas are experiencing higher rates, for the most part, job seekers have the upper hand in the hiring process these days. With the job market the tightest it has been since 1969, some candidates are evidently less concerned about blackening their reputation through rude behavior.

To be clear: Recruiting is a two-way street, and candidates have every right to end the process if they think the job is not the right fit or if they accept another offer in the meantime. But it is still common courtesy to let an employer know if you are withdrawing your candidacy. The fact that increasing numbers of workers don’t bother is an indication that the labor market is currently tilted in their favor.

Perhaps even more telling is the phenomenon of new hires evaporating in their first few days of work. Recruiters told The Wall Street Journal that they have faced financial consequences when candidates accepted offers, filled out onboarding paperwork and then disappeared without giving notice.

The problem has become sufficiently widespread that the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago mentioned it in December’s Beige Book – more formally known as the Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District – which tracks employment trends. The report said, “A number of contacts said that they had been ‘ghosted,’ a situation in which a worker stops coming to work without notice and then is impossible to contact.” The exact meaning of “a number” is unclear, since there is no hard national data on the practice. But anecdotal evidence supports the idea that ghosting is on the rise.

Michael Hicks, a labor economist at Ball State University, told The Washington Post that in a tight labor market, workers have less incentive to endure awkward or unpleasant conversations with the boss. Instead, they just vanish. “Why hassle with a boss and a bunch of out-processing,” Hicks said, “when literally everyone has been hiring?”

In this sort of labor market, some workers who are especially in demand may also just have too many irons in the fire and honestly lose track of offers they find less enticing. Others who have ghosted cited the potential employer or recruiter’s bad behavior or disorganization during the process. And some employees have noted that widespread ghosting merely gives certain employers a taste of their own medicine. Especially when unemployment spiked during and after the Great Recession, many job seekers complained that firms never followed up after interviews, leaving candidates hanging. In this sense, some workers may feel that turnabout is fair play.

HR professionals note that workers in low-paying service positions and entry-level jobs are most likely to ghost a position they already hold, perhaps reflecting a feeling that they owe little to their employers, especially in an environment where they know they can secure another job without difficulty. High-turnover employers, such as call centers, seem especially likely to have existing employees vanish without a word. Employees who feel disengaged from their jobs and their workplaces are less likely to take the trouble to formally resign, some observers have suggested. But the rising prevalence of ghosting among office workers and in higher-level positions seems to be the real indication that job seekers are broadly aware they have the upper hand, at least for now.

This doesn’t mean that, on an individual level, ghosting is a good idea. Beyond the basic respect involved in formally resigning from a job or withdrawing from an interview process, communicating with a potential employer means that you haven’t needlessly created bad feelings which could unexpectedly crop up if the hiring manager or recruiter suddenly turns up elsewhere in your future professional life. The current sense some candidates have of ghosting without consequences may turn out to be an illusion.

Yet while recruiters are rightly frustrated by this trend, economist can view the phenomenon as good news. Ghosting is one more indication that employment is strong and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Despite worries about automation taking away jobs from American workers, the real-world evidence suggests that the labor market is running full steam ahead. This, in turn, reduces the risk of a rapid economic downturn or recession anytime in the near future. And that’s a good reason not to be too scared of job market ghosts.

Managing Vice President Paul Jacobs, of our Atlanta office, is among the authors of our firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. He wrote Chapter 12, "Retirement Plans"; Chapter 15, "Investment Approaches And Philosophy"; and Chapter 19, "A Second Act: Starting A New Venture." He also contributed to the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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