Impersonal Employment and Workplace Ghosting
In December, The Washington Post reported on an odd, eyebrow-raising phenomenon in the working world: employees are “ghosting” their employers. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, ghosting is an unfortunately common practice in the dating scene. It occurs when someone breaks off a relationship without warning or notice and then ceases all communication. In the business scene, it’s a catchier, hipper name for job abandonment. Instead of giving the courtesy of a two-week notice—or any notice for that matter—employees just vanish without a word, silently moving on to their next endeavor. Workplace ghosting might be the fallout of an impersonal employment environment.
These employees feel comfortable abandoning their jobs because they believe ghosting their employers won’t come back to haunt them. And they may be right. With the unemployment rate being remarkably low and the demand for skills remarkably high, workers often have the upper hand, so much so there’s sometimes little incentive for them to depart cordially. They’re not worried about a bad reference, and it’s nothing to them if their former employer now scrambles to find coverage.
While ghosting is one way that employees quit their jobs, another is when a worker takes pains to publicize their disapproval, usually online, enumerating grievance after grievance to any interested parties. Would-be employees—arguably the most interested party—only need to search a prospective employer’s name on the internet to see what the current and former employees have to say about its working conditions.
Even if most employees still leave their jobs with adequate notice and common courtesy, the fact is that workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers. With so many workers jumping from job to job—eager for better compensation, career growth, improved cultural fit, or just something different—and with the demand for work greater than the supply of unemployed workers, employers are searching for effective ways to keep talented people in their organizations and encourage positive brand messaging from their employees.
"The more useful an employer can be to its employees, the more it can satisfy their wants and needs, the stronger the incentive will be for employees to stay."
The Upside and Downside of the Employment Relationship
As we discussed in September, the best way for employers to attract and retain happy, hard-working people is to be useful to their employees, providing things such as skill and career development, coaching, meaningful work, praise and appreciation, community, and monetary rewards for organizational success (see the article linked below to learn more). These benefits are important because the employment relationship is fundamentally about usefulness. The more useful an employer can be to its employees, the more it can satisfy their wants and needs, the stronger the incentive will be for employees to stay.
But this basis of the employment relationship is also why employers and employees don’t always get along. And it is why some employees vanish without a word or—worse—with a diatribe against their employer. When people have personal connections, they’re motivated to work through their conflicting interests with respect, care, and a willingness to compromise. But if their relationship is about nothing but utility, if the other’s momentary usefulness is all that matters, then there’s no incentive to be courteous and understanding when conflicts arise or when one party ceases to be of use. The relationship can be discarded as you would discard a dead battery, bent key, or some other now-useless thing.
What’s more, some employees are going to leave no matter what an employer can offer. If retaining employees isn’t always possible, employers can still endeavor to make the departures smooth and cordial so as to minimize turnover expenses and encourage former employees to speak well of the organization.
The Role of HR
When retaining employees isn’t possible or desirable, HR still has an important role. Here are a few ways to respectfully say “goodbye” when the time comes:
- Address poor employee performance early. When an employee isn’t getting their job done or otherwise meeting expectations, the easy answer is often to terminate their employment. However, immediate termination, particularly with no warning or attempts by the employer to correct the performance, sends the employee away with a chip on their shoulder and leaves the employer without adequate coverage. If the employee is feeling particularly retaliatory, they may launch into a public tirade online or file an unlawful termination claim. As an alternative to immediate termination, you can put the employee on a performance improvement plan. If successful, it would further both your interests and the employee’s; and, if not, it would at least show a good faith attempt to give the employee a chance to improve, reducing liability if termination becomes necessary.
- Solicit employee feedback. As you may know, most employees in the United States are either unengaged or actively disengaged. Disengaged employees are more likely to complain about their jobs or their bosses or other work-related matters, but probably not to their employers. Some of their complaints might be legitimate and worth addressing, but if they’re only talking to each other or to people outside the company, employers can’t do anything to resolve the specific problems, and the negativity only begets more negativity. The solution: collaborate with employees to identify and address problems in the workplace. You can solicit direct feedback through surveys, stay interviews, exit interviews, and regular check-ins between managers and subordinates. Employees will only be willing to share the concerns, however, if they believe it’s safe to do so and they trust that their employer will at least attempt, in good faith, to address their concerns.
- Say goodbye with style. It can be sad, and an extra challenge, when good employees take jobs elsewhere. But it can also be a cause for celebration, and both the departing and remaining employees will appreciate a nice send-off, even if it’s just through a company-wide email. When you celebrate the bittersweet successes of your employees, you show you really care about their professional development and them as individuals. They move on with good will and with a good impression of their time at your organization.
It’s wonderful if employers can motivate good employees to stay with their organization, but that’s not always realistic. Since some employees—both the good and not-so-good performers—will inevitably leave the organization, it serves the interest of employers to make these terminations as smooth and respectful as possible. That reduces the chances of disengaged employees ghosting their employers or loudly announcing their displeasure to prospective customers, to job candidates, or to anyone else who will listen.