As companies look to find and retain global talent, knowing how to interview across cultures is a competitive asset
Given the different value and style variations across cultures and the variety of channels through which interviews could be conducted – there cannot be a universal standard for interviewing across cultures, but we can, at least, identify some lessons learned.
Plan to allocate more time for interviews. An interview that you might allocate 1 hour for in your home country, might take 1 ½ – 2 hours across cultures.
Be clear about your objective, and what you can do to support the candidate in helping you fulfill that objective, e.g. would an interpreter be beneficial (after all, the most important hiring criteria might be technical know-how or creativity rather than English fluency per se). If the candidate is to work and be managed locally, English might be a secondary consideration. Many managers mistake language fluency for intelligence and skill. It is important to hire the right talent rather than the most fluent talent. Help the candidate prove they are what you need.
Gain cultural self-awareness
What are your cultural expectations (biases) for:
- How to communicate effectively?
- How an interview should be conducted?
How you expect an interviewee to respond, e.g. not showing hesitancy in answering questions, being relatively informal, talking in a self-promoting way about themselves and their achievements, giving you direct eye contact.
When you recognize your own interview norms, you can begin to recognize them as just one set of possible norms rather than universals.
Use people and online resources to gain knowledge of the interviewee’s cultural context, e.g. their cultural norms about the appropriateness of direct or indirect communication, attitude to questioning authority figures, appropriate eye contact. Try to see the interview from the interviewee’s perspective. If you dont, you could end up with a very wrong assessment of a candidate’s potential.
Take time to introduce yourself, your role, and the company. A candidate located outside of the firm’s home base may only have a partial view of the company.
Give the big picture
Explain the opportunity. Position the opportunity in relation to the strategic objectives of the company as well specific divisions, units, teams, etc. A comprehensive understanding of the context is very important in some cultures – they want to understand the Why? as well as the What?
Establish a candidate-friendly environment
Explain the interview scope and process. Let the candidate know what you want to cover in the interview, the types of questions you will ask (and why), and explain how you expect the interview to proceed.
At the beginning, you could label the main stages, and use these labels during the interview to signal you are moving to another stage. Allow the candidate time to respond to your description of the interview, and provide more explanations, if needed. Ask some general questions first to build rapport.
See if you can form a connection with the interviewee, e.g. any time you have spent in their country, what you have read about their country.
Control your voice and demeanor
Let your voice and behavior convey respect and support. Adapt your communication style to the interviewee (e.g. more direct – more indirect, louder – softer). Avoid verbal or non-verbal signs of impatience or criticism.
Let the candidate pace the interview
Give interviewee extra time to speak. If you rush through the interview, you are unlikely to give the candidate an opportunity to demonstrate their attitudes, awareness, knowledge and skills (particularly if their first language is not English). No matter how much time pressure you feel, the interview is not about you, but the candidate and his/her potential value to the company.
Avoid making judgments in the early stages. You may have done some background research on the interviewee’s culture and, perhaps, their performance history and experience, but you may actually understand very little about this particular candidate. Put yourself in a judgment-free zone for at least the first third of the interview. Whatever assumptions you make in that period, check them as you go forward.
Turn off your assumptions
We all make assumptions, but it is very easy to make wrong assumption interviewing across cultures, e.g. never assume that someone who speaks indirectly is weak and timid and will be unsuitable for the job.
Silence is golden
You may perceive silence as wasted time, but in the candidate’s culture silence may be perceived as valuable, i.e. time to be used to think and formulate the best possible answer. Don’t rush to fill silences.
Empower the candidate to ask questions. You might expect every candidate to ask you a question, but some for cultural reasons might be reluctant to do that. In this case, you can help by suggesting questions that might typically be asked.
Check in, often
Make sure the candidate is comfortable with the process, and provide any further explanations, as needed.
Repeat what a candidate has told you. Give every candidate a chance to correct any misinterpretations you might have. Cross-cultural communication can be full of them.
A sense of humor is a great asset working across cultures, but jokes rarely translate well.
Final Word: Focus on substance, not style.