The Subtle Way You’re Burning Bridges Without Even Realizing It was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
I considered myself fortunate that I was already deep into my relationship with my now-husband when ghosting began trending in the dating world. The concept, frankly, of literally disappearing from someone’s life without an explanation, is brutal, and I felt grateful that I’d escaped its trenches. That is, until I realized that ghosting doesn’t exist only in romantic circles but in professional ones as well. I learned quickly just how badly it sucks when it happens to you.
The first time I was professionally ghosted, it took me a minute to understand that that’s what had happened. Initially, I was naïve enough to believe that the person who’d promised to follow up with me about a project we’d discussed in detail—including on the phone—was going to eventually get around to it.
She was busy, I was busy. It wasn’t pressing. But, it was happening—or she would’ve explained why it wasn’t. Or so I thought. Weeks went by, and then finally an email! It was riddled with excuses (never a great sign), a profuse apology (nice but not totally necessary), and a promise to deliver once things (see excuses) were sorted.
I’m a reasonable person, so of course I replied that it was no big deal and that I looked forward to working together. Again, it wasn’t a time-sensitive matter, so I figured it would happen when the timing improved. I never figured she’d go poof! But that’s exactly what happened. I’d been ghosted.
A few more months went by, and I felt it appropriate to give the benefit of the doubt. What if there’d been a tragedy? A family emergency? A life-changing circumstance? Social media confirmed none of those things, and so, to me, it meant only one thing: She’d just burned a bridge.
Instead of sending a short note (maybe even with a little white lie), this woman’s ghosting had tainted my picture of her. I’m too busy to be outwardly mad at anyone, and I don’t hold grudges as a rule, but this was an unprofessional move that it’ll be hard to forget if she contacts me in the future.
And so in the interest of preventing further relationships from being discolored in this way, can I make a suggestion? It’s OK to bow out of something! You’re allowed to say yes to a favor, then regret that and want to say no. It’s not the end of the world to cancel plans, or even to sever a relationship if you’ve got a good reason (and only you can answer that)—but it’s super not cool to say you’ll be in touch and then fall off the face of the earth.
If you’re dealing with any of the scenarios I just described above, this is what you could say instead of pulling a disappearing act:
I’ve been looking at my schedule and I realized that I’m not going to be able to contribute to [name of project] after all. I hope you understand, and I hope we can be in touch down the line. Best of luck to you in this endeavor.
Or for an enthusiastic friend of a friend who really wants to meet you to pick your brain:
I’ve been looking at my schedule and I realized that I’m not going to be able to meet for [coffee/drinks/discuss my career] after all. I hope you understand, and I hope we can be in touch down the line. Best of luck to you in your job search.
Or, if you’ve let this linger for a while now and reading this article shocked you into wanting to reach out:
So sorry for the delay in getting back to you! I’m usually much faster with my responses. Things have been busier than usual on my end and I’ve realized that I’m not going to be able to [meet for coffee/assist with the project/volunteer] after all. I hope you understand, and I hope we can be in touch down the line. Best of luck to you!
It doesn’t get any easier than this. You don’t have to give details. But if you’re the one who’s decided that a professional partnership of any kind isn’t going to work, you do have to be considerate—and that means being upfront. If the details make you uncomfortable, don’t dig into them. If you’re asked for more information, then you can decide how much you want to divulge.
But the sure thing here is that there’s a way to extricate yourself from something if it’s what you decide you need to do. Going radio silent isn’t an acceptable approach. It’s merely a cowardly one—that’s as true professionally as it is personally, and it’s hard to forget.