Anyone who’s ever dabbled in online dating is intimately familiar with being ghosted. Suddenly and without explanation, your romantic interest ceases all contact, never to be heard from again.
Sadly, anyone who’s ever conducted a protracted job search has received the same treatment from a potential employer. In our modern age—when options are infinite, time is precious and workers are dispensable—it’s common for employers to express interest in a candidate, only to abruptly stop communicating with them at a moment’s notice, offering no reason as to why.
There’s no phone call, no customary “We decided to go in another direction” rejection letter; in fact, you’ll never be given any indication whether the job is even still available. All you’re left with is a sliver of hope, a mountain of anxiety and dozens of unanswered follow-up emails with the subject line “Checking in.”
But why do so many companies put their corporate image at risk and engage in such rude, dismissive behavior? Cursory research reveals there’s no good answer. When a company fails to get back t0 an applicant, they’re mostly just being “lazy and inconsiderate,” says Aaron Rines, CEO of San Diego-based recruiting agency LinqM. But that—like excuses for romantic ghosting—sounds like a bunch of BS.
Unsatisfied, I sought to interrogate the motives of companies who act like a bad Tinder date that doesn’t text you back after getting handsy in the back of an Uber.
Here’s what I found.
They Don’t Want to Get Sued
Often, rejected candidates ask their employers for feedback on what they can improve on, only to be met with stone-cold silence. In this case, companies may have a genuine excuse: They don’t want their feedback to become the basis of a discrimination lawsuit; as a result, they end up not giving any at all. That comment about “not having enough experience” can be construed as ageism, for instance.
“Liability and lawsuits are more in play than ever before for employers,” Rines says. “Therefore, they’re cautious through every step [of the interview process] to keep themselves out of trouble.”
That doesn’t preclude them from giving a vague rejection letter, though. Yet fears of a lawsuit are so intense they can result in utter silence. “[HR executives] are overcautious to the point of not saying anything at all,” according to Tim Sackett, president at HRU Technical Resources, a staffing firm in Lansing, Michigan.
Another possible explanation is that the company’s HR department just doesn’t have the courage to tell you the bad news. “Most people are super conflict-avoidant,” Sackett continues. “And your average HR or talent-acquisition person is even more conflict-avoidant.” They delight in filling job vacancies—not in telling candidates they’re subpar.
Michael North, professor of management at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says this attitude is common—in both love and business. As ghosting requires zero effort, it’s an easy way out of an inherently awkward interaction. But this cowardice always reflects poorly on a company’s reputation, not just an individual’s. “As we teach in business and in psychology, avoidance is rarely an effective long-term strategy for any kind of conflict or awkward situation,” he says. “In fact, it almost always backfires in the long run.”
They’re Keeping You as a Backup Candidate
Sometimes, companies have a specific candidate in mind for the job, but don’t want to reject the other candidates until they have the top candidate’s butt in a chair working away. That process can take months between the interview(s), getting everyone to sign off on the candidate, salary and benefit negotiations, background check, paperwork and weeks to months between the person leaving their old job and starting the new one. Since the candidate can decide to back out of the job offer at any time, the company keeps you hanging on as a second option. (It’s kind of like cushioning, but in this case, your livelihood is on the line.)
“The hiring process is much more complex than perceived by the average person,” says Rines, who has lost $50,000 in recruiting fees after a candidate accepted an offer and changed their mind last minute. “I’ve had people take counteroffers, get into a car accident day one, never actually start and/or ghost me after accepting an offer.”
The Company Is Poorly Run
Most of the time, though, the ghosting comes down to a communication breakdown within the company, Sackett says. The company recruiter will contact you saying they like your résumé and are interested in you for a position. That information will be sent to the HR department, which sends it to the hiring manager. But the hiring manager doesn’t think you’re right for the job, promotes someone from within the organization or decides not to hire for that position after all. And that information never makes it back to the recruiter who contacted you initially, and who suddenly lost the ability to reply to email. Essentially, you’re stuck in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic quagmire, and no one has the answers you seek. “It doesn’t make it right,” Sackett says, “but it’s the reality of what happens behind the scenes.”
Really, Though, There’s No Excuse
“The companies and people who don’t give feedback are questionable to work with,” Sackett says. “The best companies and talent-acquisition executives take pride in getting back to candidates, because they know they might have another job for that person in the future. But if you never got back to me last time, I’ll just be like, Screw you. I’m not gonna take another job from you.”