June 18, 2018

Jobseekers: Sign In | Sign Up Recruiters
  InFocus Newsletter Newsletter archives

Share this article:
Bookmark and Share

Separation Anxiety

Why some candidates will NEVER show up for their new job!

You have extended an offer to a candidate. The candidate accepts. Follow up calls during the next week indicate all is well and your applicant is fully committed to starting on the following Monday morning.

Just as you had placed this project behind you and were focusing on new positions … you receive an unexpected call at 9 PM on Sunday evening. It is your applicant that was supposed to start at 8:30 AM the next morning. Before the person even finishes their first sentence you make the following observations:

  1. Candidate is speaking using a half octave higher or strained tone of voice than what his/her voice normally was.

  2. Candidate is breathing rapidly with very shallow breaths.

The candidate mentions some irrational issue as being the deciding factor against starting the job. It can range from among any of the following or more:

  1. I can’t deal with highway traffic … this will require I sit in traffic 45 minutes and that’s too much.

  2. I can’t deal with highways.

  3. I can’t work in a room with out windows.

  4. Can’t work because its above the 20th floor …

  5. etc., etc.,

You realize nothing at this hour will work, especially the eve before she was supposed to start.

You attempt to guess at what just happened?

As recently as the late nineteen-eighties such instances would be referred to as a bad case of “cold feet” or similar. It can happen during a wedding, birth of child, moving to a new home in a new state, or in other life-changing events such as … yes, a new job.

Since the nineteen-nineties significant advances were made by the National Institute for Mental Health. The NIMH in conjunction with other psychological associations began identifying many common behavior patterns with labels. Labels such as “Panic Disorder”, “Anxiety Disorder”, “Phobias”, etc.

Yet for recruiters … who spend every living day of their lives dealing with human behavior … few know anything about the major psychological behavior problems hidden among their candidates or how to spot them.

In fact I’ve observed countless of national training guru’s yet not one has ever included a comprehensive overview of behavioral issues in the curriculum … instead … recruiters are told to think like “sales people” and offer cute rebuttals instead of truly learning the complex issues they may be confronted by. If your confronted with a candidate undergoing a panic attack no polished script will work.

I first became interested in psychological issues after hearing a well-worn decades-old story my mother told me dozens of times. It goes like this:

She was on the boat around 1957. As the steamship was readying to leave the port in Palermo, Sicily, the fog horns sounded. She was waving at her dad on the pier and just as she was about to yell “Goodye” she lost her voice. Completely! Only a squeak could be produced.

For the duration of the voyage, no one knew why my mother could not talk. When she arrived in New York City she was sent to a hospital and quarantined for observation and testing. After weeks of testing, still, no one could find out why this woman could not talk.

Then one day an African American nurse appeared by her bedside. She was dark skinned and dressed in a white nurse uniform. Being as my mother had never seen a person of African ancestry before leaving her small village … she was frightened … and screamed loudly demanding help!

Suddenly her voice was back.

It’s a wacky story that makes people laugh whenever I tell it. Even my mom thought is was funny but never bothered to inquire what the cause was. Unlike my mother, I find unresolved problems and questions an invitation for further studying and research. And so it goes as this story gets passed on to my kids … how “Nonna” got her voice back: By being startled and frightened.

Today’s science tells us what my mother most likely experienced was separation anxiety. To this day, she chokes, looses her vocabulary, frame of thought, and ability to reason the moment a conversation or event triggers a certain emotional response. It doesn’t require much by the way.

For this reason my own relationship with her has been very strained and distant because her chronic anxiety and panic attacks prevent us or the rest of my family from having any discussion beyond inconsequential issues such as weather, etc. Anything I consider of significant importance or interest triggers the anxiety … and results in her “choking” and being unable to speak.

As the years went on … I suspected this was a hereditary phenomenon. My cousins had agoraphobia, and my sister has claustrophobia … so it runs in families and several books I’ve read lead me to believe my daughter has a touch of this. Fortunately for her, she has not one but two educated, involved parents who have learned to work around the issue by loading up with books on which was unavailable to previous generations.

Now let’s fast forward to about eight years ago. 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 noticed the familiar patterns. He was a former executive for a Fortune 300 company in the H.R. department. He was accustomed to working under pressure and deadlines involving hiring hundreds of professionals each year.

This time Hank was very pale, with a strained high pitched voice. And was talking while taking rapid shallow breaths. “Hank” I said, “are you feeling okay?” Hank was having a Panic Attack. He didn’t know it but I did. It turned out he saw a doctor that prescribed Xanax but it was no good. The cure for Hank was getting him a position back in Corporate H.R. and out of recruiting. That made the anxiety attacks disappear.

I spoke with him a few weeks ago and he mentioned never getting an episode of that attack again since being back in corporate HR for about eight years now. For Hank … working in a job requiring monthly production and commission goals was too much and triggered anxiety resulting in serious physiological symptoms.

So whether it’s a certain job, detaching oneself from something they’ve been comfortable with most of their life such as his/her home town, or facing a move to a new state … panic and anxiety attacks affect tens of millions of Americans. More information can be found on for those of you that are interested. And if you’re not interested … you may want to reconsider your profession as a recruiter.

Better you do get interested now as this will most likely 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. You may have simply dismissed it as “cold feet”. Remember, in such instances the candidate his or herself may be very embarrassed to reveal the truth and you will not know unless you have educated yourself on the subject.

By the way … don’t think this happens only to low level office support people … there are CEO’s of the largest corporations being treated for anxiety and it effects people at all salaries and professional levels right through boardrooms themselves.

In my next article … I will describe methods you can use when encountering panicked candidates and additional books you can read to learn more about a subject you should be aware of as a recruiter. I will also suggest what you should do.

It ain’t your father’s bout of “cold feet” anymore … it’s a serious affliction you should educate yourself if you plan to deal with people daily.

- Frank G. Risalvato, CPC

Risalvato has appeared on numerous radio and TV business segments and has been considered a nationally respected authority on hiring and staffing trends since 1987. He has written countless articles on the subject of careers, job searching, recruiting & more since founding IRES, Inc. in 1991 · Visit and get two of his books for the price of just one through January, 2005 · Main Tel: (973) 300-1010 · Email: