The Challenges of Cultural Difference

Tips on Cross-Cultural Recruiting

“Sumak was a dream candidate. He graduated from MIT with a Masters's degree in electrical engineering. He had 3 years of experience working for a large defense and commercial electronics firm, and he was willing to relocate. But he insisted on sending me resumes filled with photographs of his family. He even sent me some currency from his home country because I had mentioned that I thought it colorful.  He told the potential hiring manager and me all about his family connections back home and how those might be useful to us, and when he learned that I was single, he insisted that I at some point meet his sister! I was actually afraid to recommend him for fear I would be in trouble”  - Senior Recruiter, large defense contractor.

“Rapinee was sure she would be offered the position we had open because she had the highest GPA possible from her home university, which was rated the best in her country.  She also came from a titled family, and her father was a very important businessman with government connections.  She was reluctant to interview at all, and superficially answered my questions. She thought she should just be offered the position!  I was so angry (although I did not show it) that I immediately decided not to pass her excellent resume on.”   -Director of Technical Recruiting, Semiconductor firm.

These two vignettes illustrate issues that can arise when recruiting someone from another culture.  While most North American and European recruiters have a basic understanding that people from other cultures are different, most assume that the person being interviewed has been “westernized” and knows our operating principles.  It is usually a shock when either overt or subtle behaviors show how different cultures can be. Even recruiters who have lived abroad and have experienced other cultures are often caught off guard by the actions of candidates who seem very much like us and have excellent academic and experiential credentials. As we enter a virtual recruiting and work world, it is more important than ever to become culturally aware.

I teach cultural competency courses and have lived and traveled extensively in other countries for half of my life.  I speak other languages, and I am married to someone from another culture.  Still, it is often surprising how often I react negatively or positively to the cultural differences that are increasingly part of our life.  Those of us in urban areas work with people from other cultures daily and are often deluded into thinking we are cultural experts. Yet, we get surprised as much as anyone else.  As organizations expand their recruiting virtually to other countries and as different cultures mix, being culturally competent is critical to any recruiters’ success.

Recruiters tend to operate under several assumptions and unspoken rules.  Here is an incomplete sampling of some of them.

1.     Interviews are more or less formal affairs, and exchanging personal information or getting “chatty” is frowned upon as unprofessional.

2.     Degrees are only important for a short time after graduation. By the time someone has been out of school for 3 years or so, the kind of work they are doing and where they are working plays a greater role in deciding who to hire.

3.     Where someone went to school, where they are from geographically, and the parent’s social status plays little role in selection.

4.     Family is not discussed during the recruiting process except in a general and superficial manner. Talking about family history or siblings and showing photos are taboo.

5.     The fact that a candidate has been a favorite of the boss or that s/he has received special praise or recognition internally is either frowned upon or of minor importance.

However, each of these may be deemed very important to those from other cultures. Many cultures place great importance on family connections, titles, and schools. Bringing these up in the interview is expected and necessary to gain the recruiter's favor. Anthropologists divide cultures broadly into those that are collectivist and those that individualistic.  Collectivist cultures are family and group-oriented. Most European and North American recruiters have been brought up in a very individualist culture where accomplishing things independently of others is considered a virtue.  However, in collectivist cultures, such as those in most of Asia and parts of South and Central America, the opposite is true. So showing your commitment to the family and the group is important to them.

Cultures are also divided by body language and the way people address others. We are all sensitive to this, and we know that people from some cultures won’t make direct eye contact.  Others show bodily deference by bowing or keeping their bodies lower than those of people considered superior.  Some call everyone “sir” or “madam” or use titles and formal names when addressing anyone deemed more important than they are. This kind of behavior turns off most European and North American recruiters.  We like people who “look us in the eye” and respond to our questions firmly, quickly, and with confidence.  Any different behavior often influences their judgment as to whether a candidate is suitable. Everything, from how close someone stands to you to their hand gestures, results from cultural training and upbringing.  These behaviors are hard to change and should not influence a decision about a candidate’s skills and abilities.

Here are a few tips on becoming a more culturally sensitive, and therefore more skilled, recruiter. Multicultural recruiting will be more and more important over the next decades as organizations become more global and virtual in their recruiting practices.

Tip #1: Take a course in cultural competency

Build up your understand of different cultural norms and gain skill in dealing with people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. Most universities and many other organizations offer cultural competency courses, and a quick Google search reveals many books on the topic. Cultural competency is not about learning what to do and not do in a particular country.  Rather these courses provide you a framework of cultural knowledge that makes it easier to understand and respond to specific behaviors.

Tip #2: Expect to be surprised

When interviewing candidates from other cultures, be prepared for different behaviors, and try not to judge based on those behaviors or actions.  Probe for competence and skill.  Perhaps give a short skills test and make certain the candidate understands that you are focused on skills and competence, not on family or degrees or titles. Be prepared to spend some time in what you feel is meaningless chitchat or in conversations about family or other things that seem outside the expected.  You may learn a great deal about the candidate, and you will put them at ease. Schedule a little more time for the interview when the person is not a native of your culture and learn a bit about that culture's norms before the interview.

Tip #3: Examine your own biases

Make sure that the criteria you use are as free as possible of cultural bias.  Think carefully about your own biases - maybe you have specific issues with people from a particular country or culture that might color your judgment. It is critical to know yourself and make an extra effort to be unbiased. For example, a criterion that says the candidate must answer quickly and concisely may disqualify good candidates who prefer to talk and elaborate on their answers.  Your criteria should be directly related to performance on the job and not on subjective and unproven traits. This applies to native candidates as well.

Tip #4: Separate culture from skill

At the beginning of this article, the two stories exemplify highly educated and capable candidates who should not be excluded because of their culture.  North American cultural traits may be the norm for most of us, but those traits are significantly different from those of Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern backgrounds. Being able to separate culture from skill, and knowing how to steer a conversation or interview to the areas important to you, are important parts of being a good recruiter.

It is often said; I think erroneously, that as the world shrinks, we all become more alike.  What I see is that as we experience more cultures, we become more aware of the many small but enriching differences we bring to our work.

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Relevant Links

Cultural Competency course from Cornell

Cultural Competencies

What is Cultural Competence?

Cultural Competence for the 21st Century