Separation Anxiety

You’ve extended an offer to a candidate, and the candidate accepts. Follow-up calls during the next week indicate all is well. Your new employee is fully committed to starting on the following Monday morning. But just as you place this project behind you and start focusing on new positions, you receive an unexpected phone call at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday evening. It is your applicant, who is supposed to start at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. He’s changed his mind, he starts to tell you. Before your candidate even finishes her first sentence, you make the following observations:

  • She is speaking using a higher-pitched and more strained tone of voice than normal.
  • She is breathing rapidly with very shallow breaths.

The candidate mentions some seemingly irrational issue as being the deciding factor against starting the job. The excuses might range from among any of the following (or others):

  • “I can’t deal with highway traffic. This job will require that I sit in heavy traffic for 45 minutes a day, and that’s too much.”
  • “I can’t work in a room with out windows.”
  • “I can’t work at this office because its above the 20th floor.”

You quickly realize that no amount of re-convincing at this hour will work, especially the evening before she was supposed to start. You now attempt to guess at what happened and what could have been done to avoid this situation. Your immediate thoughts turn to having to confront and inform management, which will obviously not be happy at the news you must relay. What happened? As recently as the late 1980s, such instances would probably have been referred to as a bad case of “cold feet,” “last-minute jitters,” or something similar. These bouts of heightened anxiety can happen during major life events ó and sometimes unbeknownst to the individual themselves that they have a predisposition to them. Anxiety can occur during a wedding, the birth of a child, moving out of state to a new home, or changing jobs. In most cases the “butterflies” created are just the result of the garden variety nervousness we all have and get over fairly quickly. For some of us, however, anxiety can spiral into an “attack” of the highest variety. As recruiters, we must be prepared for dealing with anxiety that occurs from the latter. Since the 1990s, significant advances have been made by the National Institute for Mental Health in identifying and categorizing various mental health issues. But don’t expect your family doctor to be on top of such things, as mental health disorders (if that’s the right term) are often undiagnosed properly even by well-intentioned medical practitioners. Anxiety disorders are not rare; millions of Americans are afflicted by mental health concerns, such as anxiety or panic, even though they are engaged in very successful productive lives ó this includes even CEOs of major organizations. That’s why so many “self help” programs are advertised on radio stations. I’ve observed countless recruiting training “gurus” in action, and I have been disappointed that I have yet to a single guru mention behavioral issues as they relate to recruiting in their training curriculum. Instead, recruiters are taught to think like “salespeople” or “businesspeople” and offer packaged rebuttals instead of truly learning the complex issues they may be confronted think. If you’re confronted with a candidate undergoing a panic or anxiety attack, no polished script will work. None. Period. I became interested in psychological issues around eight years ago when I first confronted them in my own office. One of my top recruiters was talking to me while standing just outside my office. I noticed his voice was strained, so I looked up and observed the familiar patterns. He was a former executive for a Fortune 300 company. He was accustomed to working under extreme pressure and deadlines; his job had involved hiring hundreds of professionals. This time, I noticed he was very pale, with a strained, high-pitched voice. He was talking while taking rapid shallow breaths. “Are you feeling okay?” I asked. He mentioned that he was experiencing what appeared to be “heart palpitations” (which had nothing to do with his heart) and had been taking Xanax, a tranquilizer, for a few days. He was having a panic attack right in front of me. The cure for him was getting back into a conventional position in corporate H.R. and out of recruiting. Even if I had increased his salary base, the thought of having to start all over again each month with production and commission goals was too much and triggered anxiety attacks. I spoke with him a few weeks ago, before writing this story, and he mentioned that he has never experienced an anxiety episode since being back in corporate HR for the last eight years. For my old friend, the symptoms disappeared as soon as he moved to a position that eliminated the trigger. Whether it’s a particular job, detaching oneself from something one has become comfortable with for most of one’s life, or facing a move to a new state, panic and anxiety attacks affect tens of millions of Americans. More information can be found on and for those of you who are interested. If you are not currently interested, it’s best you become so ó as this issue will directly impact one of your placements soon, if it hasn’t already. Chances are you’ve already lost placements and were not aware of what the underlying cause was. Remember, in such instances the candidate himself may be very embarrassed to reveal the truth, and you will not know unless you have educated yourself on the subject. Sometimes the candidate or may not know what he/she is even experiencing either. By the way, don’t think this happens only to low-level office support people; there are CEOs of the largest corporations being treated for anxiety. It affects people at all salaries and professional levels right through boardrooms themselves. According to the American Psychological Association’s website, these are a few of the telltale signs you must observe in order to determine if you may be facing an anxious or panicked candidate:

Article Continues Below
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing, feeling as though you “can’t get enough air”
  • Terror that is almost paralyzing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
  • Trembling, sweating, shaking
  • Choking, chest pains
  • Hot flashes, or sudden chills
  • Tingling in fingers or toes (“pins and needles”)

So what do you do if you have a candidate who is running away from the job for apparently no rational reason? If the person is having a real panic or anxiety attack, unfortunately the best thing you can do is provide empathy, agreeing with him or her that this is not the position they should be pursuing. Thousands of dollars of therapy over many years can treat, but rarely completely cure, this disorder. Therefore, no recruiter is about to perform a miracle either. Your best approach is to:

  1. Empathize. You will earn respect if you shed light and empathy.
  2. Agree to assist in smoothing over the notification to hiring management of the candidate withdrawing (protecting the candidate’s integrity and acting as a “linebacker,” if you will).
  3. Determine what the “triggering issue” was, so that perhaps you may still have in front of you a good candidate for another position.
  4. Never belittle or ridicule the candidate’s issue; this will only aggravate the problem.

I have had cases where I’ve lost deals due to panic triggered by air travel, tall skyscrapers, and even offices without windows. These were good candidates by the way. In fact, they can be stellar candidates ó provided you stay away from what you have determined to be their anxiety trigger. One last word: Separation anxiety, which is one form of the various anxiety disorders, does not always stem from a mental predisposition. It can be caused by environmental and experiential factors as well. I have had a few cases during the last decade where someone who had been on the job for a period of 10 years or more simply could not bring him or herself to resign when the time came. In one instance, it happened to a six-figure controller. The memories of the office parties, golf outings, and holidays spent with co-workers became overwhelming, and the person could not resign. In his case, the thought of separating from his long-time employer became too much to deal with when push came to shove. For this reason, whenever I find myself dealing with people in the same job for 10 years or more, I spend extra time going over what the resignation process will be like (if an offer is imminent), to make sure it gets “internalized” and that they are motivated and able to go through with it. Another great website where you can obtain a crash course on anxiety disorders during your lunch hour is the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

President of & Within two years after leaving the corporate world in 1987, Frank Risalvato was earning $21,000 average fees as a search consultant. Each individual fee equated to almost 50% of his previous annual salary in 1987. In 1991 he founded, the search firm he continues to operate today. Today his fees are more than double that of his earlier years while working fewer hours weekly. Frank's audio download page on provides an opportunity to "be a fly on the wall" and listen in to live calls, messages, conversations with clients and candidates. His recent book, A Manager's Guide to Maximizing Search Firm Success has helped recruiters using it lock up partial and full retainers between $5,000 to $45,000 by helping drive home the concept of exclusive/retained over the usual contingency approach.


1 Comment on “Separation Anxiety

  1. This is an instance where I believe most, if not all of us in a Staffing function have faced this anxiety, and I have never felt that I was properly trained to manage it.

    The concept of separation anxiety is very relevant to me, and I beleive that this article provides very basic, self-evident ways to manage the disorder.

    Once the staffing specialist realizes that the candidate’s reaction comes from an anxiety, it allows one to follow the simple outline described in the article to keep a candidate in your database and possibly coach them thru to another opening within your organization or at a client.

    Very helpful, thank you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *