There are a myriad of reasons why companies ghost candidates; often it’s more about what’s happening at the company than a reflection on the candidate.
Applying to a job is a time intensive process. You may research the company, fill out an application, coordinate an interview, prepare for the interview, do the interview (plus travel time), and send the follow-up email. There might even be multiple rounds. This can be hours of work. While no one likes to be rejected, being ghosted is even worse. After you put all that time into the process it seems disrespectful to not get an answer. It is indeed, but it’s not always a bad sign. There are many reasons you may be ghosted and even if you are, it’s usually not about you.
We’ll start with the obvious. Some companies don't respond to everyone. I can tell you that for some roles I can receive hundreds of resumes. It’s gotten worse since these days applicants can one-click apply to jobs letting people apply to dozens per day. As I tend to work for small companies, I myself am the HR department leading hiring, this in addition to my other job functions (I’m typically a CTO/ CPO). Often, I simply don’t have time to respond to all the resumes. This has been made easier by an ATS (Applicant Tracking System); it lets me put a candidate in the reject pile and send an automatic rejection. Companies not usually that still need to manually reply, and even with a copy and paste that can take time for hundreds of candidates.
Reasonably, most people think companies should respond to everyone who interviews. While you may have hundreds of resumes, it's usually a relatively small number of people actually brought in for an interview. Even then, depending on the role it could be quite a few. Still, if someone shows up for an interview (even a virtual one), they deserve a response. Companies that provide no response ever aren’t being considerate and they should consider adjusting their process.
However, there are many reasons a company you’ve been talking to for a few weeks may suddenly go cold and most of these are not a reflection on you. Sometimes it’s even out of the control of the hiring manager.
First, there could be changes at the company. The company may be restructuring or switching up its project priorities. There may be a new manager in the group, or economic uncertainty may motivate a pause in hiring. I’ve been at plenty of companies where we hire based on planned fundraising or growth but if that gets delayed, so do the roles. Note that these are all uncertain changes. If a company is shutting down the division and won’t be hiring, they should reject you (although that’s not personal); but if they just let the manager go no one is around to close the loop on candidates.
Sometimes it’s a change that may take weeks or even months to work through, meaning until they know the status of the open role. They don’t want to reject you because they think they may still need you but need to wait until the dust settles. Often, they don’t even know exactly when that will be. I’ve been in situations where I think it will just be a week or two and then it looks like another week or two more and suddenly it’s been eight weeks and we’re still not sure. The hiring manager may not have a clear timeline and certainly can’t give a lot of details about what is going on.
Ideally a company should reach out and say, “We haven’t forgotten about you, we just need to sort some things out.” Unfortunately, that’s not a standard part of the process.
In other cases, the role may be shifting. As I discuss in Chapter 3. Interviewing of The Career Toolkit, Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You many companies don’t know how to define the job correctly. It’s during the process of interviewing that they start to wonder if this is still the right role. Even if they did define it correctly to start, they may be rethinking it based on recent changes, or even because of candidates they’ve seen. When I’m hiring up a team, I may have six open roles. I’ve always taken something of a Moneyball approach in that I don’t need people with titles X, Y, and Z, but rather people who together can perform a number of tasks. While they often break down to people with X, Y, and Z titles, sometimes you find someone with a different set of skills who you want to hire and then readjust what to look for in other roles. (For example, while there are many CTOs who can also do CPO work, very few also have experience running HR. Some early-stage companies who hired me have held off on hiring HR after hiring me because I can hold down that role for a bit; had they hired a different CTO they would have needed the HR person sooner.)
Depending on how many roles and how much cross functionality there may be in candidates the potential hire of one candidate may cause a reordering or rescoping of other roles. That can put your hiring process on hold until they see how other roles play out first. Here again, it’s not a reflection on you, but a change on the side of the company.
Sometimes it’s just scheduling issues. This is especially likely during holiday seasons, busy times for a company, or if there are many people involved in the interview process. If a key person goes on vacation for a week the company may hold off on the process that week. If after that someone else is out sick or has a key deadline, the company may postpone an interview with another candidate. There’s now a two-week delay from when you last spoke to them. You don’t have visibility into this but since their response to you depends on how this other interview goes you suddenly feel radio silence. Again, there’s a delay that has nothing to do with you, but for which you get no transparency.
Talk to any salesperson and they’ll lament how customers who seem very interested in buying the product suddenly slow down . . . remember that you’re in sales, you’re selling yourself to the company.
Often things just come up. Talk to any salesperson and they’ll lament how customers who seem very interested in buying the product suddenly slow down. I’ve done this many times because my CEO will tell me it’s a priority only to have something else become a bigger priority, so I went from telling the vendor, “We need to decide in six weeks'' to, “let me get back to you after I deal with something else.” I wasn’t lying, things just changed. It’s not even the CEO’s fault because she may have just found a big opportunity, or a fire just started, and she needs my help putting it out. Before you think “that’s sales” remember that you’re in sales, you’re selling yourself to the company.
Ideally a company should reach out and say, “We haven’t forgotten about you, we just need to sort some things out.” Unfortunately, that’s not a standard part of the process. Most ATS systems have standard stages like phone screen, test, interview 1, and offer as stages. They don’t have an “on hold” stage for a role that gives everyone an update and tells them to stand by. (If you work at an ATS company, you should consider adding this feature.) It means we, the hiring managers, have to remember to do this manually. And again, there’s not always a clear moment when the role goes on hold. (Admittedly I often have it drag a bit and then when one candidate checks-in I think I should update everyone with a “we haven’t forgotten but are moving slowly” email.)
The situation can be even worse when you’re going through an external recruiter. The company may not keep the recruiter in the loop. Or they may send a message saying, “we’re figuring things out and will get back to you shortly.” This causes the recruiter to wait to get back to you, but then the company never gets back to the recruiter.
None of this makes the process any less pleasant. It can feel even worse because often companies are rushing to fill a role, pushing to get you in sooner, and then without warning slow to a crawl.
If you do find yourself in limbo, it’s ok to reach out to the company. Typically wait a week or two since your last correspondence, although how much to actually wait is really based on the cadence to date. If they were emailing with you every day for the past few weeks and then go cold, it’s ok to reach out after just a few days of radio silence. If it’s a company that is in touch just once per week, then a week or two is more appropriate. Here’s a sample email.
I want to touch base with you since it's been a little while since my
interview. I know sometimes the process can slow down based on
the schedules of people involved or as you think through the role.
As I’m in discussions with other companies I just wanted to check
on next steps.
You can rephrase the last part of that email to sound more interested (e.g., adding “I’m excited about the opportunity and know my experience . . .”) or more hard-to-get (e.g., “I’m expecting offers from other companies in the next week and will have to make a decision shortly after that.”)
Ghosting isn’t fun but it’s not always bad news. If you haven’t heard from a company after an interview, don’t assume the worst. There are many reasons they may not be getting back to you. A polite email might move it forward. Even if you still get ghosted or rejected, know that there are many reasons for it, and not all of it has to do with your qualifications.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.