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Working in a Ghost Town?

There’s a new phenomenon reported in the CIPD’s People Management magazine: ghosting.

But what is employee ghosting?

It’s when an employee just doesn’t turn up to work anymore. Not a word, just an absence. And as the employer, you realise that they’re never coming back.

The word itself comes from social media, often dating apps, and refers to someone ending a relationship by suddenly not sending or returning any messages. And of course, the idea is not entirely new. To an extent, it’s a Millennial rebranding of the old absent without leave, or AWOL. Though in this case, it’s more a case of resignation without notice (but RWN is not so catchy).

Another US import?

Ghosting seems to have been initially a US occurrence, reported in the Washington Post, but in short order, the UK newspapers – including the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – were reporting on it too. As yet, there are not firm statistics as to how big a problem it is, but the papers have no shortage of anecdotes.

So, what’s causing it?

One suggestion is that there are more people jobhunting than there are jobs available, the classic ‘buyer’s market’. But while that might apply in the US, it certainly does not describe the UK’s situation.

Bad bosses and badly-run workplaces can be a factor – if an employee feels treated badly enough to leave, they have little incentive to observe the courtesy of giving formal notice to quit.

There are also the wider changes to the job market. With the increasing gig economy and rise of zero-hours contracts, where’s the incentive to give your contractual notice when that contract doesn’t guarantee you any actual work?

Or maybe it’s a generational thing – if a behaviour is deemed acceptable online, sooner or later it’s acceptable in the analogue world…

Whatever the causes, what can you do if it happens to you?

What to do if you’re ghosted

First of all, in UK employment law, a ghosting employee has not quit or resigned; there is no legal concept of ‘self-dismissal’. In fact, their mysterious absence and refusal to engage in communication amounts to a fundamental breach of their employment contract, possibly with immediate effect, in response to which you, the employer, are entitled to dismiss them.

But it’s a dismissal, not a resignation. But before we get to that point:

  • Try to get in touch to give them the opportunity to explain via a variety of methods: phone, email, post (recorded delivery, should you need to prove the attempt later), instant messaging.
  • In your messages, give a clear and reasonable deadline for a response. If no response is forthcoming, you can move to dismissal (complying with your in-house dismissal procedures).
  • The dismissal is only effective if the employee receives it. If they’ve changed address (or your staff records are out of date) a claim against the dismissal is possible – another reason for communicating using a range of methods.
  • With a view to prevention, consider what factors might contribute to employee ghosting, including poor or uncommunicative working environment, how you might be using zero-hours contracts, and being more focused on recruitment (to be more sure of hiring people more likely to stay).

Some lawyers are even suggesting that one way around ghosting is to ensure future employment contracts include a clause stating that the employee will be deemed to have received any notice or communication sent to their last known address. Whether this would stand up at a tribunal remains to be seen but it may be worth a try.

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