Businesses looking to hire keep chasing ‘ghost' employees

Posted at 5:08 PM, Sep 24, 2018

The economy is booming, which has made it more challenging to find good employees. And in some cases, even when businesses find good employees, there is no promise they'll show up, or even make contact again.

For Joshua Wolter, if running a busy restaurant is not hard enough, he is staring down a problem he never saw coming. Wolter is a consultant working with Meraki restaurant in Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood.

He's trying to build a team of workers to take the hip restaurant to the next level, but finding good help is like trying to chase a ghost.

When he posts a job listing online -- it's not that people don't apply.

They do. They just never show up.

"Last week I had six interviews lined up for a day and I had one show up. And that was in a block of about two hours," Wolter said.

If you think that's rude, imagine how Molly Sullivan feels. She recently made a hire for an entry-level position at her cafe on Milwaukee's far west side. That employee never showed up for her first day on the job,

"I'm waiting there with her paperwork. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes pass. And we're like -- she's not coming," Sullivan said.

Sullivan was stood up. Which means at Miss Molly's Cafe, the boss is often stuck doing it all.

"I do everything from washing the dishes to doing the QuickBooks. I have to do what has to be done to make my business operate," she said.

Wolter and Sullivan have both been visited by ghosts.

That's the term in the human resources industry for people who either commit to an interview -- or accept a job -- never to be heard from again.

As Marquette University professor Bonnie O'Neill explained, it's a problem that appeared from out of thin air.

"I think the last six months there's really been an explosion of it. Professional organizations are hopping on board -- what is this thing -- this ghosting," O'Neill said.

O'Neill explained that ghosting is most common in entry-level work and the service industry, which is why restaurants are feeling the hit particularly hard.

Also under the gun are IT and technology businesses, where skilled workers are in high demand and poaching is common. While there is no data on ghosting, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does track when people quit a job.

That is at record levels.

Quits bottomed out at 21 million in 2009, during the peak of the recession. Last year, 38 million people quit a job.

O'Neill says the strong labor market has made people picky. What she can't figure out is why ghosters can't return a phone call or an email.

"I don't understand why they don't feel compelled to do that in return. I wish I had a really good answer for that -- but I don't," she said.

Wolter wonders if the impersonal nature of hiring through online job listings has made the prospect of employment feel more disposable to the mostly Millennial workforce he has encountered.

Or, maybe, it's the overwhelmingly informal way younger people communicate these days.

Either way, Wolter longs for the day when good manners meant everything.

"If it’s not for you or you don't like the job, use common courtesy and give a notice. Let me know it’s not for you," he said.

For employers, it's not the backing out that hurts the most. It's the surprise.

They have budgets and schedules to meet and work that needs to get done.

"When I block off 15, 30 an hour to do interviews and no one shows up -- that time is wasted," Joshua Wolter said.

Sullivan hopes it's just a phase and not the mindset of today's young workforce.

"It makes me feel sad about my generation. I'm an older millennial, I guess, and I would never ever dream about doing something like that to someone," she said.