Haunted House: The Unacceptable Practice of Ghosting 

Without the employer telling me when they consider me to be out of the running for a position, how would I ever know?  Even after “only” submitting written materials, ghosting is a very disappointing and dispiriting practice.  

In the last installment, I began to try an approach of radical transparency to draw back the curtain on the job application process in public health. Let’s be clear: secrecy benefits none of us job seekers. The received wisdom that we should all be quiet and discreet about our experiences on the employment market is only supporting employers to perpetuate practices that are unfair, inequitable, and likely discriminatory. I’ve been obediently quiet about my experiences for a couple of decades and quite evidently it doesn’t seem to have helped my prospects much.  Now I’m hoping that by sharing my experiences and working towards breaking down taboos, I can help others who are also going through similar experiences to feel less alone and to support one another. I admire the work that Katherine Goldstein is doing to shine a light on the finances of entrepreneurship, and I’m inspired to shine a light on the similar taboos governing our experiences of job applications. 

Context is everything. And if we keep it all private, we’ll never be able to contextualize. Unless we start to share our stories, there’s no context, and there’s certainly no support. Please consider sharing your story too — contact me to find out how. 

Ghost in the machine? 

In today’s installment, I will shine a light on my experiences of ghosting, based on my experiences of seeking steady employment in public health. As of my most recent data (January 2019 – December 2022), I had made a total of 143 highly targeted job applications within my specific niche. My data show that up to 57% of my job applications sank without trace — ie, the employer did not respond to let me know whether or not I had been rejected. Among these ghosted applications, 10% followed a personal interaction of at least one interview.   

Meanwhile, for 39% of my applications, I received a formal rejection notice. Among these rejection notices, the mean time taken to communicate a rejection was 95 days — ie, more than 3 months. Two of the rejections came after more than a year.  Are rejections after this long any better than no response at all? (Based on my experiences, I now use the term “ghosting” to refer to applications where I heard no response from the employer within 3 months of submission.) 

Ghosting after a written application 

Fairly appalled by the realization that ghosting was happening so frequently (although unsurprised), I sought to understand the phenomenon a little better, and tried to explore the stage of the application process at which it is happening. 

Looking at the Sankey diagram I shared last week, you can also see that most of the ghosting (around 90%) I experienced was happening at the first stage of an application: after the submission of written materials only. But let’s acknowledge the amount of work that goes into “only” submitting a written job application: by the time I have submitted my job application materials online, I have already made a substantial investment of my increasingly limited reserves of effort, energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and TIME. I have already created and tailored individualized cover letters and application materials. I have already entered all of my personal details into the employer’s ATS (applicant tracking system) — including all of the information already included in my resume that I am being asked to double-enter. I have already completed all the requirements of the job application, which may include providing a writing sample or examples of previous work. I may already have been asked to provide details of my references (push back!). I have certainly had to complete my demographics and sometimes consent to a background check too. “Only” submitting a written job application is anything but simple. 

So being ignored by the employer advertising the vacancy, even at the initial stages of the application, is nevertheless poor form and reflects disrespect and a lack of consideration for the time and effort that I have put into my application in order to meet their requirements. 

A standard boiler-plate email would suffice to communicate a rejection. It’s insufficient for an employer to simply update their own portal with a status update indicating that hiring is closed, because we job seekers are often diligently following many different applications, and realistically we are rarely able to keep up with online status updates across all the disparate recruiting portals of all our many applications.  

How hard can it be to send out a simple rejection email?  Surely the employer’s ATS could be configured to automate this process as standard? An alternative practice that I have seen used overseas is to communicate right from the get-go in the job posting the intended interview schedule for this position: if the future interview date is known, then at least the candidate has a date in mind when they can give up hope and know that they have not been successful in being called for interview. (While I’m on the subject: recruitment timeline is just one of 3 essential components of a job advertisement that ought to be communicated upfront: the other 2 are salary and location/WFH/hybrid expectations. How do we work towards standardization?) 

In the case of the 74 job applications that I made where I was ghosted after submitting a written application, I did not know when to give up hope. Every day, I might be wondering whether or not I had made it through to the next stage of the process and whether I would be invited to progress. And with every passing day, the chance of being selected to attend an interview gets smaller. Does the employer realize that we job seekers are still out there somewhere, wondering each day whether today will be the day that we will hear from them? How long do they think it takes for us to give up hope? Do they rule us out before we consider ourselves ruled out?  

Without the employer telling me when they consider me to be out of the running for a position, how would I ever know? Even after “only” submitting written materials, ghosting is a very disappointing and dispiriting practice.  

Ghosting after an interview (or 2) 

Meanwhile, you can see from my data that 10% of the ghosting I experienced was happening after at least one or even multiple interviews, following on the heels of direct and personal conversations with the interviewer and/or hiring manager. I have been through 8 job application processes for which I attended 1 or more rounds of interviews, including panels, and was then ghosted. That’s more than 8 relationships that I have started to build. Ghosting after an interview and the start of a personal relationship: that’s not just a waste of time — it’s also rude and disrespectful.    

By the time I have reached the interview stage of the job application process, I have invested yet more time and effort and energy and enthusiasm into preparation and research. For some, I have painstakingly prepared presentations on specific topics as instructed. By engaging in the interview, I have sought to build connections with the human beings who I am hoping will be my future colleagues and team members. I have tried to establish relationships and find common ground. I have answered all the questions that they have put to me, and hopefully had a chance to ask a few well-researched questions of my own too. I have engaged them in conversation and tried to find mutual understanding regarding our professional interests. When they ghost me after an interview, it’s difficult to avoid interpreting that as a very personal rejection of the connection that I thought we had begun to establish. 

Do these employers stop to consider that behind each application, there’s a human being with hopes and dreams? Do they notice that the human being on the other side of the interview was trying to build a relationship? I try to consider those ones a lucky escape from an employer who evidently doesn’t value people or people skills. 

Some ghostly questions for employers 

In larger employers, the technical portions of the interview with content specialists may be conducted separately and quite distantly from the HR functions. I wonder whether the technical people who interviewed me — with whom I frequently felt that I had developed connections and found common ground on our professional interests — even know that the HR people setting it up never actually got back to me with an outcome? You know that ours is a small world, and our paths will cross in the future: how should I act when we see each other again? I am certainly not the one with anything to be ashamed of. 

I think back to the time that I was selected to attend an in-person final-round interview in the US while living in London: the employer booked my round-trip transatlantic flights, put me up in a hotel, covered all my expenses… and then afterwards never contacted me again. Why allocate resources to my travel but not towards sending me a rejection email afterwards? Clearly, there are structural and staffing priorities in play here. (But don’t weep for me: I had a nice junket of a visit seeing family and friends at someone else’s expense!) 

Meanwhile I continue to wonder whether the ghosting is a deliberate strategic oversight for purposes of efficiency, or is it simply carelessness with the endless supply of human beings flooding our job market at the moment? Is the separation between technical content and HR logistics an acceptable excuse? Surely ghosting must reflect some deliberate strategic decisions about resource allocation and how staffing is assigned to HR processes. 

Is ghosting happening because there are insufficient administrative staff available to send a standard boilerplate rejection email? Creating and sustaining the infrastructure for decent, respectful hiring practices requires resources. Budget cuts affecting the infrastructure of how you treat human beings has moral implications. (Thanks to Karen Kelsky for framing this insight.)   

Do the leadership figures in the organization even realize that ghosting is happening? If you have recently supervised a recruitment process, please make the effort to find out what happened to the rejected candidates: reach out directly to your HR colleagues to ask who contacted the rejects to let them know that they were no longer in the running, and on what date.   

Is ghosting happening because it’s a natural consequence of supply and demand for employment? Right now, across the labor market, the demand for labor (availability of job opportunities) is limited, while the supply of candidates is high. These trends are especially heightened within our specialized market for skilled public health labor, with its own peculiar history of funding and politics. As a result, employers currently have all the power to get away with hiring practices that they call efficient and I call disrespectful, because they don’t have to try to woo these increasingly desperate candidates.   

Who you gonna call? 

Ghosting is getting really old and unsurprising now, but it still has the power to hurt. I dream of creating a website to galvanize collective action where we can anonymously bring all of this ghosting to the attention of leadership among the ghosting employers in an effort to stamp it out and build industry-wide norms for a recruitment process that respects candidates. Are there any Ghostbusters out there who want to work with me? Contact me

Questions (join me for discussion in the comments or on LinkedIn)

  • What have been your experiences of ghosting?  Tell us your most egregious ones.   
  • Are there any circumstances in which ghosting is acceptable?  Or at least understandable? 
  • What kinds of collective actions can we use to speak out against ghosting and stamp it out? 

Read previous columns in this series:

Author Profile

Katie Schenk
Dr. Katie Schenk is an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health informatics specialist. She has been working on the public health frontline for governmental Health Departments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Dr. Schenk is serving as a member of the US Medical Reserve Corps at COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites. She teaches Public Health and Global Health at American University in Washington DC and George Mason University, VA. Previously, Dr. Schenk led a portfolio of social and behavioral research studies on children and families impacted by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa at the Population Council. Visit her website: https://kdspublichealth.com/about-dr-katie-schenk/ Follow her on Twitter: @skibird613 and LinkedIn: dr-katie-schenk-4a884b84