Explaining Social Anxiety to Employers

I have been job searching for approximately five months now and would like to share some of the insights that could be helpful for people as they go through the job search. Explaining social anxiety to people who are unaffected by the condition can be a difficult task to master. From our (the socially anxious person’s) perspective, it seems difficult to explain to someone else that talking to other people can be stressful, simple tasks such as picking up a phone to call a colleague can be scary, and that sometimes we hesitate for a lengthy time to make decisions at work because we fear the criticisms others may make.

The good news is that all personality types can be very beneficial in various organizational roles. Typically, the leaders of various organizations are thought of as outgoing, aggressive, charming, and highly confident, which appears to be the opposite of most socially anxious people. Here is a brief list of some of the challenges presented by social anxiety and how to turn those challenges into assets that would make a person be a more attractive candidate for employment. I have also included a couple random tips not specific to turning strengths into assets, but that are nonetheless very beneficial for helping you to determine if you will be successful at this particular job.

  1. If you are the type of socially anxious person who has trouble making decisions quickly at work, you might describe yourself as a “cautious thinker.” Portrayed in a negative light, you might say that you are a “hesitant” decision maker. Cautious thinking relates itself better to certain jobs, and quick decision-making relates itself better to a different set of jobs. If a job description notes that the work environment is “fast-paced,” then this is not the place for you. However, if the job seems to require careful thought and introspection before a decision is made, then that might be the job for you. People who are more hesitant and that use careful consideration before making decisions are good at making big decisions and may fit management or executive management positions better than those who make quick decisions.
  2. If your social anxiety makes it difficult to interact with a variety of people in a short period of time, then you would explain to an employer that “large groups of people and a lot of interaction stresses me out.” This is a reasonable explanation, and if you were to say that,”I suffer from social anxiety disorder,” this may put you into a category that alienates you from others at work. Positions that are customer service oriented such as customer service itself, being a secretary or administrative assistant, a host, waiter, or case manager require extensive interaction with people and would not put a socially anxious person in position for success. I learned the hard way that “case management,” a very standard and common position in Social Work, is too frustrating and stressful for me because I have to deal with too many people and too many negative emotions. Positions that may fit you or I better would be ones requiring less interaction with people and more thinking through challenging scenarios or working hands-on. These types of positions might be being an IT support specialist, a business analyst, an HR generalist, landscaper, carpenter, accountant and other positions of that nature.
  3. If your social anxiety makes it difficult to make even minor decisions at this point, then tell your employer that you are very good at following directions and procedure. Look for jobs that do not require too much decision-making and instead require following routine – there are plenty of them out there! Job duties might include processing applications or entering data. While the work may not be thrilling, it is work and will support you until you have reduced your anxiety enough to undertake more challenging positions. Or, you might just find that you truly enjoy jobs that involve a high level of routine. The point is that there is something out there that you can do.
  4. If your social anxiety reacts to the typical corporate environment (lots of cubes and people in a small space), do not open up a dialogue about this with your employer. If you are at the interview and are nervous about the number of people in the organization, ask to take a tour of the office. During the tour, you will be able to gauge if you will be able to tolerate working in the environment. The reason I advise to not tell is because there is a possibility that you might be able to tolerate the workplace, even though you think you cannot. Only you know your limits at this time, and firsthand experience in the form of a tour will tell you whether you will be successful at the workplace or not. If you absolutely cannot tolerate the workplace, let the interviewer know that,”This is not what I am looking for,” and move on to the next interview. If you have a reasonably confident feeling that the workplace will be challenging but not overwhelming, then finish the interview, take the job if offered, and learn from the experience that follows!
  5. If you gauge that your boss, or potential boss seems to be a kind and understanding person, then you can take the risk and tell them that you are affected by social anxiety disorder. Some employers in the for-profit world are understanding of this. Many employers in the social services and not-for-profit world are understanding of this, but not all are. Among reasonable people, honesty is valued the most, and a reasonable person will respect the risk you took. If you need some reasonable accommodations, perhaps extra support when times get hard, a reasonable boss would be willing to provide that support.
  6. Another great test to determine if you will be successful at the job is to ask to meet who you will be working with at the interview. You will be able to tell after having met the people you may potentially work with whether they are the types of personalities that you historically work well with, or if they are the types of personalities whom you clash with. Follow the same procedure as tip #4 and politely excuse yourself from the interview if you sense something dreadfully wrong, but keep going if things seem all right.

One interesting thing that I would like to add is something I read in From Good to Great by Jim Collins. Basically, what Jim Collins says is that one of the key elements to having a very successful organization is what he calls “Level 5 Leadership.” A “Level 4 Leader” is someone who accepts praise, rejects criticism, but is nonetheless very charismatic and talented at what he or she does. The issue with this leader is that the focus is all on him or her, not the organization, and as a result, the organization eventually falls back to mediocrity when the leader moves on. However, a “Level 5 Leader” is someone who deflects praise to others in the organization, accepts criticism from others, but is also talented at what he or she does. Many of the profiles of these types of persons are of people who are quiet, lead simple lives away from the corporate world, and whom seem generally like any other person on first glance. People like this who are in charge of organizations are rare, being in charge of something around 2% of all organizations according to the numbers in From Good to Great. The point that I am making from all of this is the following: how many of us social anxiety sufferers does a “Level 5 Leader” describe? We are often quiet, unassuming, and lead simple lives away from work. The criticism can be tough to handle, but instead of blaming others and putting them down, very often we take it and deal with it. Surprisingly, though we do not fit the typical profile of a leader, it seems that probably very many of us social anxiety sufferers would actually make excellent leaders indeed.

In sum, I hope that I have been able to provide socially anxious people who are going through the job search with some helpful insights. Social anxiety sufferers have plenty of strengths that can be beneficial to the workplace, however, since we are not a mainstream group on society’s and media’s radar, we have to be a little more creative in our job searching. Good luck to everyone on their job searching!