This article originally appeared on Forbes.
I talk with so many women who try to be generous with their time, whether it’s going the extra mile to create a great culture at work or simply just hitting the reply button to follow-up with others. Given this generosity I found the act of ‘professional ghosting’ surprising and it continues to gain momentum especially among women. Ghosting takes many forms but the term became popular when referring to relationships and dating where parties in communication with one another suddenly opted not to respond. I am fascinated by how this happens not only in personal relationships but also our professional ones. We are told to build our networks and support each other but the more I speak to women, the more I hear about the rise of ghosting at work.
While it may seem comical to talk about ghosting in a professional sense, believe me, it is very real. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this now as a relatively new entrepreneur which requires a significant amount of proactive communication, but given my two-decades in the corporate world, it happens - colleagues, clients, recruiters, etc. Sometimes people fall off the radar and never respond to emails, calls or what I like to call persistent outreach. With the increase in social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, Bumble Bizz and more, as well as the growing number of networking events and conferences, we are always connected and accessible. This always-on culture has also made blind outreach more acceptable. I would like to point out that the ghosting I’m referring to is very different than not responding to blind reach out. When you receive cold calls or queries without any context or having had any form of communication with a person and you decide not to respond, that’s different than going silent mid-conversation.
I’m a firm believer that if you put yourself out there and reciprocally agree to help with an introduction, identify a mentor, make a connection, put in good word, you should just do it. Follow up is critical to any role, relationship or business and your professional reputation. We’ve all experienced those meetings when the other person enthusiastically agrees to do something or help in some way and then never does. You continue to follow up and it's radio silence. You wonder what you did wrong or why they offered to help and don't. Many ghost to avoid saying no. We don’t want to disappoint or not be helpful; however, we run the risk of damaging our reputations when we ghost.
According to Mita Mallick, Head of Diversity and Cross-Cultural Marketing at Unilever, “part of the ghosting phenomenon stems from the fact in our ‘always on’ digital world, we are constantly making introductions and connecting people without asking for permission to make the introduction. Just the other day I was introduced to someone and as a result my time was offered without my permission.” The intent behind introductions come from a good place. Mallick further states, “now that the introduction has been made, I am forced to make a decision on whether to ghost or not to ghost. And because it’s my personal brand at stake, I’ll now have to take the call. Not everyone will make that choice.”
Minimizing connections or time spent with people who are likely to engage in this kind of ghosting behavior, especially the mean girl, is one way to avoid this conflict. If it isn’t a mutually beneficial relationship this might be a potential red flag that one party might ignore the other. You might think the good faith agreement to help one another exists, that "women supporting women" is an unwritten rule which should rule out bad behavior, but Mallick recommends having verbal contracts with contacts up front. “For a friend growing her coaching business, she may agree to introductions without being asked ahead of time. She wants the business. For a friend who is a busy CHRO, she may only agree to introductions that you have vetted with her first. And for a friend who is a recruiter, always on the hunt for great talent, she welcomes any introduction of strong candidates.” However, if you’re making a welcomed introduction it’s important to set expectations with both parties around follow up. This is both a courtesy and it builds rapport for your reputation and relationships.
"I think there is this epidemic happening where relationships are often being treated as transactional rather than relational. The truth is, we can only experience true fulfilment when our focus is on what we can give rather than get, and when we value collaboration, community and connection over competition,” according to Author and Leadership Coach, Kate Eckman. "I've been blown off initially because the person didn't think I had anything to add to her bottom line. Only when she discovered 'who I was' and how I could 'help her' with a high-paying, highly sought-after opportunity did she make space in her calendar for me. It felt inauthentic, and I didn't feel comfortable introducing her to a business leader who values teamwork and a strong sense of community." Although we must find ways to say no politely, and it is okay to say no, we also need to be professional. With so much digital, we are losing the face-to-face connection and it makes it that much easier to not respond to a text or email.
We are playing the long game in our careers and our networks are smaller than we think. You never know who you are going to come across or need to work with, leverage support or connection from, why not just be honest and transparent. Eckman says, "It's deeper than, 'Be nice to people on the way up because you never know if you'll need them on the way down.' I believe we are in this together and should want to help one another and lift each other up. Otherwise, what is the point of it all?" If someone follows up with you on something, respond, be direct about what you can and can’t deliver, if you’re open to making a connection, whether they are a fit for a role or an opportunity. Don’t say or agree to something and then not follow through or deliver.
Ghosting might seem like the easy way out for people who don’t like to deliver bad news or can’t provide support. In fact, the best way to make the situation better is to respond. It’s better to deliver some news than avoiding the conversation altogether. No one likes to be strung along. We all need to know where we stand and like having the ability to move on without sending the “moving this to the top of your inbox” emails. It’s hard to not take ghosting personally but in many cases, people are just busy, they forget, or frankly want to avoid having the conversation at all. The next time you are chasing a response, following-up for the third time or skimming past an introduction made in your inbox months ago, I do hope you remember this story and consider finding time to respond to some of those ghosts in your inbox, even if it's delivering a response they might not want to receive.