Was it me?

Analyzing one of the most pervasive and disturbing forms of dysfunctional communication infecting business today — Professional Ghosting

Analyzing one of the most pervasive and disturbing forms of dysfunctional communication infecting business today — Professional Ghosting

Ten years ago I was in the process of setting up a NYC-based office for my startup. Every Monday I found myself on a plane, heading out for another round of office viewings, interviews of sales staff, and media buyer pitches.

We had hired an outstanding EVP of revenue who was well-connected and had put out feelers for sales talent. She typically teed up the meetings I took with prospectives when I came to NYC, one of whom was a young woman we’ll call Yolanda.

Yolanda blew me away at the outset. For her interview with me she flew out to Chicago, where I was attending the annual conference my company produced, and she walked the entire length of Navy Pier with me in a pantsuit and heels. She was professional and respectful of the company we had built. She could talk about the brands she’d closed and her approach to selling, but she could also have friendly, casual conversations with my co-founders and our customer communities of sponsors and bloggers. She was confident and immediately likable.

I recall pinging my cofounders and EVP after the conference and asking to get an offer out to Yolanda as soon as possible. Her package, I was told, was extremely generous for a junior-level seller. But that’s what it took to hire promising digital sales talent in NYC in a market where we competed with mainstream media companies.

The next few weeks I got to know Yolanda more, accompanying her on sales calls in NYC and talking with her in the office. My EVP had indicated there were aspects of the pitch that Yolanda needed to learn and that sometimes she came across as a bit airheaded — less confident than she’d appeared during interviews. This hardly bothered me — all sellers had a period when they were getting comfortable with the pitch and products, and there was a steep learning curve in what was then the nascent practice of social media marketing. I thought nothing of it at the time.

A few months later I arrived at our NYC offices on a Tuesday morning and was told I could sit at Yolanda’s desk for the day. I had assumed she was away on calls. My EVP shared with me with manufactured nonchalance that Yolanda would not be coming back to work at the company. I was shocked.

“You let her go?” I asked. “Why?” No one had told me there were serious performance issues.

“Not exactly,” my EVP said. “It’s for the best.”

“Did she resign?”

“In effect she did, yes.”

I still didn’t understand. Several pairs of Yolanda’s shoes — heels that she changed into for sales calls — were still under the desk.

“Did something happen to her?” I asked.

At this point, my EVP knew that there was no way to casually explain what had happened. Yolanda just stopped showing up, she said, and she never called or explained why she wasn’t at work. The team was worried for her and called and emailed her continually, but no response. After several days they even reached out to the police, fearing the worst. At that point, Yolanda sent a brief email indicating that she would not be working with us any longer, for personal reasons.

My EVP threw up her hands as if waving off a bad smell, “So that’s it; we’re better off.”

All I could think was, “But she left behind such expensive shoes...”

During her brief time at my company, I must have connected with Yolanda on LinkedIn: Years later I noticed she provided a “thumbs up” on a post I’d shared there. She’d moved into sales in another industry. I was tempted to look at her profile and see what she’d been up to all these years but thought against it.

I’ll never know why Yolanda stopped coming to work; it’s none of my business. But what has stuck with me over the years is how wrong I was about her. I thought she was a polished, professional communicator; we compensated her well for that. None of her colleagues could report any indicators that there were problems, or that she was unhappy. If anything, she seemed excited and happy to work with us.

It made me realize how at-risk we really are with anyone we hire. And how little we value true communications in the professional realm. We need to appear competent and professional, and we’re encouraged to use our communication skills strictly for fiscally advantageous purposes, such as “acing the interview,” or “closing the sale”.

But how do we communicate more ambiguous situations: “I know you took a chance on me, and I am grateful. But this just isn’t a fit for me,” would have been nice to hear from Yolanda. Then she could have left with all of her shoes.

Why don’t we value integrity more? Why don’t we value courage?

Unfortunately, that would not be the last time I’d experience professional ghosting in my career.

I’ve read with fascination stories about celebrity couples ghosting each other, or about the ghosting phenomenon, in general. Though ghosting was popularized by the preponderance of mobile phones, we — as in, humankind — have tended toward being conflict-avoidant way before mobile came around. By the time I was in college I’d had my share of paramours who said they’d call me and never did, ever again. But the immediacy and dominance of mobile communication has magnified this kind of emotional abuse and given it a name. And the preponderance of mobile seems to have enabled the cross-platform application of ghosting— phone, text and email.

In a live setting, where the ghoster cannot make himself evaporate in your presence, he responds by pretending there was never a break in communication to begin with, which feels like an assault on your sense of reality. I recall being ghosted by a collaborator who, after unavoidably encountering me in a store while shopping with his wife, gave me a big bear hug. I recall my body bristling before my mind could even process a) who this person was; and b) that just months before, he and his business partner had approached me about being a co-founder of their company, negotiated an advisory agreement, spent hours defining my role, engaged in fundraising meetings with my mug on their co-founder slide, traveled to a conference with me where I set up countless meetings, and filmed a promotional sizzle reel with me before my texts, calls, and emails went unanswered.

The encounter felt like a violation. I was with my kids at the time and in the uncomfortable position of not knowing who to be: A jilted business colleague or a friendly acquaintance. I unwittingly chose to be a confused amnesiac, uneasily going along with the ruse while feeling my face go hot.

An undeserved side effect of being ghosted is feeling somehow responsible for the break in communication. When Yolanda decided to go on Walkabout, I recall going through every communication I’d ever had with her to see if there were cries for help or signals I should have paid attention to. Months after the ghosting by my potential startup co-founders, I was at the VC firm of the woman who referred them to me, discussing other business, and I fretted over what to tell her. The truth? Nah, I thought. If I did that she might think poorly of me, as if her former colleague’s extreme, infantile behavior was a reflection of my capacity to deserve it.

Ghosting is an assault on the ghosted’s dignity. It criminalizes its victims.

Perhaps what concerns me the most about ghosting is that the act has become a practical method for handling issues — business and personal — that someone refuses to grapple with.

Having worked in sales, business development and marketing roles and pitched people more times than I can count, I assume I’ll hear the word “No” far more often than I’ll hear the word “Yes.” But I coach people I’ve managed that it’s the quality of the No responses that matter more than the quantity of Yeses in the long run. One of my biggest accounts at BlogHer had to back out of a major deal, and the head of the group called to tell me why and how internal restructuring made that happen. It wasn’t good news, but it maintained the relationship I had with them and demonstrated appreciation for the time and attention I had put into the deal. It was a straight answer.

Respectful exchange between parties is, I fear, falling away in a culture where ghosting is replacing difficult, but necessary, communications, such as “I’m sorry,” “I screwed up,” or simply, “No”.

Ten years ago, if a client I was to hear back from didn’t return a call, it usually meant she was tied up and needed more time to respond. If we had a strong relationship, she’d eventually call or email me to tell me that. And if the answer was no, she’d send me a short but friendly note saying that. And in the best “no” scenarios I’d get an explanation. I personally aspire to that level of communication with people I know.

Today the sheer volume of unsolicited communications coming from multiple platforms makes it impossible to respond to everything, let alone messages from people we don’t know, which makes ghosting that much more feasible. We can ignore difficult conversations, or the mental challenge of having to engage someone we don’t want to talk to, simply by not responding, and then blaming our overflowing inboxes for our radio silence.

An aside: I think it’s necessary to distinguish between ignoring and ghosting someone. Ghosting occurs when a significant connection has been made with someone, and with it an expectation of reciprocated communication. You are not ghosting someone by ignoring Spam in your inbox, or deciding not to return a cold call. These sorts of communications come with an understanding by the sender that they would likely not hear back. Ghosting occurs after communication has been reciprocated and terms of communication are established.

Ghosting has become a negotiating tactic. I’ve been involved in scenarios where teams “wait out” the other party. This always makes me uncomfortable, especially if there was an expectation to get back to the other party by an appointed time. “This gives you the upper hand,” I’ve been told. I believe it gives the other party the impression that, in tough situations, you like to play dead. And if the deal gets done, the other party can now look forward to working with assholes. Not a good look.

Ghosting can be an exertion of power you don’t have, and an affirmation of that fact. Recently a CEO of a stagnating tech company reached out to me about a role. After meeting in person I suspected that the role was not a fit and sent him an email declining the role but offering to help in the interim, if needed. I didn’t expect to hear back. But surprisingly, my note triggered a response a minute later, asking for a proposal. I responded, scoping out what I could do and a fee structure.

In this case, the ensuing silence screamed his frustration and validated my instincts that this was not a fit.

I’m not naive enough to think that some karmic cloud will one day cast a shadow over all who have ghosted others and leave them with the same sense of self-questioning, but I do believe that we must not normalize it. And we must not blame ourselves when it happens to us.

I no longer think twice if asked about someone who has ghosted me to call that person out. I’ll say, “She has integrity issues,” or “He’s cowardly and doesn’t have what it takes to lead.” I don’t look at the behavior as an affront so much as a warning; a dodged bullet.

Of the inspiring projects I’ve taken on recently, one I’m very proud of is Index — a group of top brand and agency marketers who collaborate with emerging companies that seek to leverage our knowledge, experience, and networks. What appealed to me about the group is the “No Asshole” mandate. Of course, we vet the companies we take on to make sure they are differentiated, but they also are “real” as we put it — they do what they say and are not selling vaporware. And we hold each partner to an integrity standard. You could have an insane Rolodex and resume, but if you don’t follow through and do what you say, we don’t want you. As one of my partners says, “I’m too old for that kind of bullshit.”

As part of that mandate we vow to always get back promptly, not only to our client companies or to business prospects, but to each other.

It’s refreshingly old-fashioned. And I’m OK with that.