The Challenges of Cultural Difference: 5 Tips on Cross-Cultural Recruiting

Sep 11, 2008

“Sumak was a dream candidate. He graduated from MIT with a Masters 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 me and the potential hiring manager 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 answered my questions in a superficial manner. 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 recruiters have a basic understanding that people 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 begin to show how different our 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.

I teach courses in cultural competency 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 in negative or positive ways to the cultural differences that are increasingly part of our life.

Those of us who are in urban, coastal areas work with people from other cultures on a daily basis and are often deluded into thinking we are cultural experts. Yet, we get surprised as much as anyone else. As organizations expand their recruiting to other countries and as different cultures mix, being culturally competent is critical to recruiters’ success.

North American recruiters tend to operate under a number of assumptions and unspoken rules. Here is an incomplete sampling of some of them:

  • Interviews are more or less formal affairs and exchanging personal information or getting “chatty” is frowned upon as unprofessional.
  • 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.
  • Where someone went to school, where they are from geographically, and who their parents are plays little role in selection.
  • Family is not discussed during the recruiting process except in a general and superficial manner.
  • 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 in order to gain the favor of the recruiter.

Anthropologists divide cultures broadly into those that are collectivist and those that individualistic.

Collectivist cultures are family- and group-oriented. We in North America are 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, the opposite is true. So showing your commitment to the family and the group is important to them.

Another way cultures are divided is 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.

Most North American recruiters are turned off by this kind of behavior. 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, is the result of cultural training and upbringing. These behaviors are hard to change and yet should not influence a decision about a candidate’s skills and abilities.

Here are 5 tips on how to become 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 in their recruiting practices.

  • Tip #1: Take a course in cultural competency. Build up your understanding 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 courses in cultural competency 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 seems 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 try to learn a bit about what the norms are of that culture prior to the interview.
  • Tip #3: Let people have a preview. Email interview questions to candidates before the interview and even ask them to respond in writing.  This will give you a sense of their thought process and may open areas for you to probe when you actually meet them.  It helps them understand what you are asking for and gives them a chance to think through their answers in their own language.
  • Tip #4: Use a set of criteria that you apply to all candidates. Make sure that the criteria you use are as free as possible of cultural bias. 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.
  • Tip #5: Separate culture from skill. The two stories at the beginning of this article 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 people who have an Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern background. 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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