Articles - 10th April 2020

The effects of Professional Ghosting

Words by Megan Tatum
Illustration by Jon McCormack

It was all going so well. An editor at a magazine I’d been chasing for months had replied to say he’d loved my idea for a feature. We’d emailed back and forth for weeks tightening up the pitch until he said it was perfect. He’d encouraged me to contact sources and carry out interviews. To research a trip abroad to visit one in person. And then… silence.

No more emails. Not even a one-word acknowledgement of my polite, but increasingly desperate follow-ups. Despite having spent hours, even days, working on the idea at his request I had to accept the inevitable: I’d been ghosted.

It wasn’t the first time. There was the start-up that offered me £1,000 of content work per month, negotiated down my rates and asked for exclusivity in the sector, only to disappear without a trace. And worst of all the clients that accepted work, asked for edits and said they were delighted before ignoring my requests to be paid. It took threatening legal action for them to surface again.

Sadly I’m far from the only one ghosted on a frustratingly regular basis. According to research by Leapers, 71% of freelancers in the UK say they’ve been left stressed and anxious at the increasing number of clients that think it’s OK to vanish without a word.

How did we get here? A decade ago the concept of ghosting didn’t even exist.

Then came the era of Tinder. Suddenly we could flirt and date anonymously and effortlessly outside our social circle, with almost zero repercussions. That lack of accountability bred seriously bad behaviour and with it a whole new vernacular. Now we chat about everything from gaslighting to ghosting like they’re par for the course, a fact that has seen these same behaviours seep from our personal lives into our professional one.

Whether from a date or an editor, ghosting boils down to the same thing: you were getting along great and then, without a word of explanation, they decided to ignore you.  It doesn’t only happen to freelancers either. Half of British people say they’ve been ghosted while applying for jobs and even potential employees are reportedly snubbing recruiters.

For freelancers though it isn’t only rude. Though it is. Really, really rude. It can also see us take a big hit to our income. If you pin your financial hopes for the next few months on a big lucrative project, perhaps turning down other potential clients and putting in unpaid hours, only to have it suddenly pulled out from under you, that hurts more than just your feelings.

“I was told by an editor that they loved the idea and not to take it anywhere else,” says one freelance journalist. “It had a topical hook that meant it needed publishing soon but they were a big title and I trusted them to keep their word. I was assured multiple times they definitely wanted the story and then when I asked for the final time I had no reply. It was too late to publish elsewhere and I’m pretty sure I lost hundreds of pounds.”

But what can you do about it? After all carving out a successful freelance career means constantly putting yourself out there with new clients, be it pitching ideas or services. It also requires building up relationships to secure repeat work; allowing clients breathing space to decide, trusting their good intentions and keeping a rapport friendly.

I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the answer lies in good old-fashioned dating advice. That means, don’t take it personally: some editors or clients simply don’t see a problem with routinely ghosting freelancers, and you will not be the only one.

Second, it really is them and not you: if they said they liked the pitch they weren’t lying and it’ll be changes beyond your control (less budget, less space, a change of focus etc.) that are responsible for them being a coward and not letting you know plans have changed.

Third, don’t give too much of yourself away on the first date. That means keeping your best creative brainwaves to yourself until they cough up the commission, advises freelance business expert Erica Wolfe-Murray .“Respond to their brief with good questions and inspired thinking around their needs to show you have unique approaches, but the creative work is what your commercial output should be. Then if you never hear from them again at least you will not be losing out emotionally and feel robbed.”

Consider the virtues of a pre-nuptial agreement too. Or, in this case, invoicing a percentage of your fees in advances, she advises. After all “if clients are in credit with you then they won’t want to waste their money.” Equally don’t start working without an agreed rate and deadline. “Keep detailed records of work delivery, approvals etc, then you have all you need to either take the matter up with their boss, or to take any payment claim you have to legal redress.”

Finally, have a little vent at the injustice (freelance networks and Facebook groups are great for this) and then move on. For goodness sake, don’t let them haunt you.

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