What Is A Ghost Boss? (And How to Handle Them)
You walk into the office, and a cold chill runs up your spine – your boss is missing again! Then, you log onto Slack and find another away message from your manager, who’s been out of the office for more than a week without warning. Even when it’s not a spooky season, you could be feeling scared that you won’t get your work done or that you might get in trouble when your boss eventually turns up. It turns out, you might have a ghost boss. But don’t be frightened, as you and your team can bust these ghosts on your own.
What is a ghost boss?
A “ghost boss” is a boss who haunts your office, though you never see them, never hear from them, and sometimes, you don’t even remember that they’re there. Like a bad Tinder date, your boss ghosts you when you try to reach out to them, no matter why you’re touching base. Workplace Culture Expert Tom Gimbel calls ghost bosses “hands-off” and says they often have trouble keeping track of what teams are up to and are out of contact whenever needed.
It can be hard to figure out why a ghost boss does what they do. Some say that ghosting occurs when someone is conflict-avoidant and doesn’t want to get into awkward conversations. Your boss could have social anxiety or feel burned out by work, so when they miss one email, they’re so afraid of disagreements that they ignore every other one.
Another reason your spooky ghost boss might be nowhere to be seen is that they realize they’re not good at managing other people (or they just don’t like it). They enjoy the more technical aspects of their job, but they can’t get behind telling other people what to do or how to do their jobs.
Finally, your ghost boss could be maliciously avoiding their responsibilities, especially if they feel that your team falls to the bottom of their priorities list. They can get defensive, rude, or angry when you confront them about being unavailable.
Knowing if you have a ghost boss
Just because someone’s never around doesn’t mean they fit the definition of a ghost boss to a tee. Generally, these managers have other characteristics as well – here’s how to tell if there’s one in your workplace.
1. They’re never around
As we said before, a ghost boss is just like a regular ghost – they’re floating around the office, but really, they’re not around, and you can’t communicate with them. Whether this means that your boss is never in the office or they’re never online when you need them, a ghost boss is consistently missing in action.
2. They’re not up to date
Another feature of a ghost boss is that no matter what, they don’t know what’s going on. When meeting with your ghost boss, they’ll ask the same questions over and over or think you’re further along or less far along than you really are.
3. They have no valuable feedback
Ghost bosses can be as mentally absent as they are physically absent. When you finally do get them in the room, it seems like their mind is elsewhere, and they don’t have anything constructive to say about your work.
4. They can’t teach
Because they’re not present, ghost bosses tell you what you should do rather than show you what you should do. Their answers will be quick and flighty, and they’d rather ignore your requests than show you how it’s done. A ghost boss might even respond to your question by completing something for you and then acting like you’re imposing on their busy schedule before hovering off into the night.
5. They don’t listen
Ghost bosses might be missing when you try to contact them, but they also feel like they’re fading when you have them there in person. Maybe they’re looking at their phone or very obviously doing something else during a Zoom meeting.
How to handle your ghost boss
Having a ghost boss doesn’t mean that your whole job is a bust – sometimes, having the freedom not to feel like you’re under someone’s thumb can be a good thing. Here are a few ways your team can tolerate your ghost boss.
1. Consistent updates, no matter what
Keep doing what you’re doing, work on your own schedule, and accomplish what you can. Then, let your boss know. Even if your boss doesn’t respond, keep sending them updates anyway. Who knows – even if they’re not responding, they could be reading these emails or Slack messages, and they help you feel a little more in control when your boss is unavailable.
2. Hold a séance
Whip out your Ouija board and get your ghost boss back by using a medium – or in this case, another manager. Others at your boss’ level (or even above, if you’re comfortable with skip-level relationships) can lend a helping hand, especially if you need your ghost boss to be held accountable for holding up your team’s progress.
3. Keep a paper trail
You’ll inherently have the emails you sent your boss asking for help, but there are other things you can keep track of as well. If you use project management software, that’s a great way to measure if proofs or queries are being answered. And if it’s within company policy to record conference calls or meetings, that’s another way to keep track of how things unfold.
4. Manage up
“‘While dealing with a “ghost boss” can be tricky, it can also be an opportunity to demonstrate your leadership skills by taking charge of the situation and show initiative in running projects while your boss is nowhere to be found.” Charlotte Davies, a Career Expert at LinkedIn, tells Metro UK.
Look at a ghost boss as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. If you want to explore managing up, LinkedIn even has a course called “How to survive the ghost boss.”