Ghosting at Work: When Is It Actually OK to Ignore Someone?

Just following up!…. she screamed into the abyss. The term ‘ghosting’ is much talked about in the dating world. You go on a bad date with someone and never reach out again. You also ignore any attempt from them to reconnect. You fade away into the void, like a ghost.

Unfortunately, this human phenomenon isn’t reserved for tinder matches or the friend of a friend’s friend you were *kindly* set up with. Ghosting happens at work, too.

In professional settings, we tend to mask our annoyance with polite follow-ups and ‘just circling back’ emails. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. We know you shouldn’t ghost your colleagues or other professional connections. But in my view, there are a few instances where “leaving it on ‘read’” while ignoring it, is actually acceptable:

  • An ice-cold sales outreach. I’m talking about where the template doesn’t even have your correct name inserted. Spray-and-pray sales tactics do not warrant a response, unless, of course, you’re interested. However, with no personalization or planning, the odds of that are likely next to zero.
  • Unrelenting follow-ups. If you’ve politely (or sternly) declined an initial outreach, you don’t need to repeat yourself. Good salespeople, job seekers, and industry connections will respectfully follow up. However, when a 1-time contact emails you every day for the rest of your life, that’s a different story.
  • Following egregious behavior. Just like the dating world, you have the right to boundaries at work, too. If someone has made you unsafe or uncomfortable, you don’t owe them a reply.

Now, here’s where ghosting gets tricky. When power dynamics are at play, ghosting happens more frequently than our human decency should allow. When someone is selling something, looking for a job, or asking for a favor, it can be tempting to not respond. After all, when you’re in the power seat, you know that person will be waiting…sometimes, for as long as it takes.

That may be true, yet speaking as someone who has been professionally ghosted (we all have), the recipient does not forget. Your reputation follows you, and should you ever be on the other side of the dynamic, your karmic silence may be returned.

Be wary of these common (but unacceptable) ghosting instances:

  • Job applications. Beyond ‘apply with one click,’ when someone has put time and effort into applying for a role, you owe them the courtesy of a response. If they wrote a custom cover letter or interviewed with you, replying is even more imperative.
  • Salespeople who did some actual work. Maybe they had a short conversation with you or maybe they really did their homework, researching your company and creating a custom outreach just for you. You don’t have to say yes or agree to any next steps, just acknowledging any type of value a salesperson created for you is polite.
  • Someone contacting the wrong person. Maybe the person they’re looking for doesn’t work at your company anymore. Maybe their last name is 1 letter off from yours, and you got the email by mistake. Imagine if someone was looking for you, accidentally reached out to the wrong person and that person didn’t respond, and now they think you’re a total jerk for ghosting. Not fair, right?  Kindly let the person reaching out know.

If you’re wondering whether or not you owe someone a response, ask yourself- would you be surprised (or upset) if they ghosted you? If you offered them the job, and they didn’t respond, would you be surprised? If you said yes to the proposal, but never heard back, would you be disappointed?

The pull-through thread in ghosting (and most human interactions) is that our overall human decency depends on us extending goodwill, even when we are in a power position. A 1-sentence response is rarely too much to ask.