Insights for interviewing across cultures

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 different 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.

Be prepared

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 sensitivity

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.

Cross cultural training will give you 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 don’t, you could end up with a very wrong assessment of a candidate’s potential.

Provide context

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 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.  Intercultural communication can be full of them.

Jokers beware!

A sense of humor is a great asset working across cultures, but jokes rarely translate well.

Final Word: Focus on substance, not style.

Do cultural differences impact productivity within your organisation? Our cross cultural training tool is used by 75% of Fortune 500 companies to develop cultural intelligence. It is imperative that diverse organisations support an inclusive culture where cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are paramount. Contact us for more information on how we can support your organisation to overcome cultural differences and turn diversity into your competitive advantage.


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About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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