• Rob Swystun

“_____” Does Not Convey a Message: Being ghosted as a freelancer

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Ghosting when it comes to employees and employers is not the proverbial one-way street. I keep seeing think pieces and articles and HARO queries talking about employees not showing up for work and not giving any kind of explanation and, as people have pointed out, employers have been ghosting job applicants for decades.

You might think that as a freelancer, you’d be spared from ghosting since clients hire you specifically to do a single job, but you’d be wrong.

As a freelancer I can tell you that I’ve been ghosted many times by both potential and current clients.

Obligatory section explaining what ghosting is

Ghosting has probably been around since the invention of people. The first ghosting incident was likely when Gronk told Blek he’d meet her at the cave by the waterfall and then didn’t show up because he got distracted by a butterfly or something.

The term began to pop up several years ago in the context of personal relationships when one person stopped communicating with the other seemingly out of nowhere after a few messages or even a few dates.

More recently, it has been applied to the workplace, as more employees have started not showing up for scheduled job interviews, not replying to job offers, not attending their first shifts after they’ve accepted a job or quitting their jobs without any warning or explanation given.

It’s gotten so pervasive that even the United States’ Federal Reserve Bank listed it as a trend affecting the country in their Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions for 2018.

Being ghosted as a freelancer

I do basically all of my freelance writing work online and I’ve been ghosted at every step of the process:

  • Chatting with a potential client about their project.

  • After having someone say they’d hire me for a project.

  • During contract negotiations.

  • Immediately after a project is done (without receiving a thank you or any feedback).

  • By long-term clients who I have a good rapport with if they, for whatever reason, don’t have anymore projects for me to do.

  • During a currently ongoing project.

Last year I had someone hire me to write an article using an online freelancer hiring service. He created three milestones for it: first draft, second draft and final draft. He funded the first milestone, I wrote the first draft and sent it to him, he gave his feedback and I wrote the second draft and asked him to fund the second milestone so I could send it to him. And then *poof.* He disappeared. In the middle of the project.

And it’s not the first time it’s happened.

Why does this happen?

Some of you reading this may be thinking the reason this happens is just because I’m an unlikeable person.

And to you I say … maybe.

But, (with a few admitted glitches here and there) I always try to be completely professional in my interactions with potential and current clients so I can’t imagine they’re ghosting me for anything I’ve done or said.

Rather, I think there are a few other different reasons for it:

1. Online disinhibition effect

The online disinhibition effect is the same thing that causes people to go on filthy anonymous (or even non-anonymous) rants online against other people. To put it simply, because you’re not having to talk to a person face-to-face, you are more inclined to be rude and hurtful while communicating online.

In the context of ghosting online, people just don’t feel the need to explain why they’ve gone silent because they aren’t talking to you in person and they almost certainly will never meet you in-person. Therefore, they don’t feel obligated to care about your feelings or about the optics of it.

2. Trend

Sadly, I think at least some people view ghosting as some kind of hot, new trend and they do it because they actually think it’s the fun new thing to do. This is just a hunch. But, when you start seeing hashtags pop up about stuff, you’re bound to get people who jump on board with something just because they’ve seen it online everywhere.

3. Communication breakdown

As we rely more and more on our gadgets and our social networks, there is a bit of breakdown in person-to-person interaction. Communications expert Nick Morgan has said that because people are inundated with messages each day, it makes it more difficult to attend to all of them.

If you’re talking to a freelancer about a project and you don’t need to talk to them anymore because you’ve decided you don’t want to hire that particular person, or the project has been cancelled or you’ve hired them and the project has been completed successfully etc, you might just think it’s easier to stop talking to them rather than bothering to send a message.

If you just stop talking to them, they’ll get the point that you’ve hired someone else or the project isn’t happening anymore or you’re satisfied with their work and you simply don’t need their services anymore.

But here’s the thing: saying “_______” does not convey a message. It does not say:

  • “Thanks for your interest, but we’ve decided to go with someone else for this project.”

  • “Sorry, but this project has been put on hold for the time being.”

  • “Thanks for your time and effort on this project. We appreciate it.”

  • “We’re taking a bit of a break right now from producing content, so we won’t need your services for a while. We will be in touch if we start up again.”

Each of those sentences above took me about five or so seconds to type and would take care of pretty much every instance of me being ghosted by potential or current clients and yet more often than not, they still opt for “_______” and expect me to read their minds.

So what do we do about it?

My own personal philosophy is to treat each and every online interaction like an in-person interaction. (Again, I have had a few snafus here and there.)

For the most part, I don’t think there’s a lot freelancers can do if they’re being ghosted by clients. On the various freelancer hiring services, if you’ve been hired by someone, you can leave a review for them and mention the ghosting, as I have in the past.

For clients who hire freelancers, you can take the seconds it requires to type out a quick explanation for why you are choosing not to communicate with a freelancer anymore. I think you’ll find the vast majority of freelancers will be grateful that you took the time to do so.

And for those people who have taken the time to do that with me: Thank you for your graciousness. This culture of ghosting has gone on too long as it is. Let’s not add to it anymore.

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