Rose Dawydiak-Rapagnani, a San Francisco-based communications strategist, recently struck out on her own to start a consultancy. In the first months, she signed up a company that made a strong impression. But after she wrapped up the job and sent along an invoice, the client disappeared off the face of the map. She followed up with them four separate times, and eventually escalated to seeking legal counsel.
“I still have not heard back from this person,” she says. “It was a perfect storm of being too generous with my time and hoping for the best.” Now, she is taking a more hard-line approach with clients by asking for some money down and discontinuing work if a payment is late.
Dawydiak-Rapagnani is far from the only victim of this kind of practice, which some call “professional ghosting.” “Ghosting” is a term that is most frequently used in the online dating world, and it involves a romantic prospect neglecting to respond to texts or calls after a few dates.
Career experts say this practice is increasingly spilling over into the workplace, ranging from being fairly innocent–an overlooked email in a flooded inbox–to downright nefarious, such as avoiding paying consultants after they’ve completed their work.
“Professional ghosting is far more common these days,” says Wendi Weiner, an attorney and career coach based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “It’s about avoiding being the bad guy.” In Weiner’s view, younger professionals who rely on technologies like text and email to avoid face-to-face contact are more often the perpetrators of professional ghosting. And they’re also typically the victims of it, as they’re relatively early in their career and potentially easier to ignore by a higher-up.
Weiner says her clients most frequently experience this kind of behavior in the recruiting context: when a prospective employer fails to respond after a round of seemingly promising interviews. But it also happens the other way around: A client of hers will take a meeting or two with a prospective employer, and never get back to them about the job if they decide to stay put or take an alternative offer.
For Weiner, this kind of behavior could be “career suicide,” as it often leaves the other party with a bad taste in their mouth that will stay with them. Even if her client isn’t taking the job, they might interview or work with that person in the future. For clients that aren’t comfortable making a phone call to receive or deliver bad news, she suggests a polite text or email instead. Anything is better than leaving another professional hanging, she warns.
Ellen Leanse, a veteran of both Apple and Google, recalls how clients would neglect to pay her for a consulting project earlier in her career. “My invoices were first greeted with a ‘great, we’ll pay you right away’ message and then, when that didn’t happen, by a litany of ‘oh, thanks for the reminders’ or ‘we’ll get right on it’,” she recalls. “Well, they never paid.”
Since then, she’s taken steps to protect herself from this kind of behavior. With her current consulting work, she requires an “initiation invoice” with any new client. This ensures that she is paid a reasonable amount up front before starting work. She’ll also routinely ask for references from former consultants that have worked with the client. That might seem untrustworthy or confrontational, but Leanse recommends playing with the phrasing. “You can ask to speak to someone who can share insights on the best way to work with them,” she says.
Leanse believes that she may have lost some jobs by taking this kind of approach, but it also helped her avoid wasting her time. “Thinking like this signals (to clients) that I’m all business and I expect a win-win partnership here.”
Another way to avoid being ghosted, suggests Leanse, is to minimize connections or time spent with people who are likely to engage in this kind of behavior. That might seem challenging to predict, but she has found ways to spot potential red flags. “Learning to clarify expectations and agree to next steps before meetings or conversations is the best way to limit the ghost potential of an interaction,” she says.
For Weiner, a lawyer by training, the key is to get contracts in writing. “You want agreements and signatures as much as possible,” she explains. “You have to be more savvy than ever in today’s business environment.”