I was recently asked to conduct a workshop for the HR members of an energy company traveling to China to hire new staff. The Chinese expats were to be integrated into teams in the UK, some as managers overseeing British team members. The training brought to light some of the major challenges when interviewing across cultures.

Difficulties in interviewing across cultures

Cross-cultural interviews can be stressful situations. The interviewer must assess a candidate that falls outside the cultural norms they are used to. Looking at their C.V., no familiar benchmarks come up.  Alma maters, maybe even former companies might draw a blank. The person in front of them does not sound, act or react the way candidates do in the interviewers’ native culture.

From the candidate’s point of view, they are often struggling in a non-native language and have their own cultural assumptions as to what the interviewer wants to hear and how the interview will unfold. These assumptions are mostly unfounded.  

Thus we have a situation ripe for misunderstanding and miscommunication …

What is the place of cross-cultural intelligence in an interview and assessment process? Why do assessors even need cultural intelligence? Surely the interviewee is the one that should demonstrate their “fit” with the culture they are applying to work in…

In reality, while the candidate will certainly benefit from going into the interview culturally prepared to face their interviewers, the latter also have a responsibility to culturally prepare if they want to have a good chance at “reading“ the candidate correctly.  Even if neither the candidate or the  interviewer do not have the time for a lengthy, specific cultural training, a first useful step is simply gaining self-awareness and moving onto a more neutral terrain. That means maintaining an open attitude, and proactively looking for solutions when the conversation gets “stuck.”

The “how-to’s” of the cross- cultural interview

There are several levels to communication, and each of them needs to be considered through a cross-cultural lense. For example body language, and how it differs across cultures. What does it mean when a Chinese candidate keeps averting her gaze? (Answer - in Asia, it is impolite to fix someone’s gaze for a length of time)

Or language.  How does one render one’s English more comprehensible to an non-native speaker? (A clue - observing English natives who have spent a long time overseas, their English tends to be neutral, devoid of colloquialisms, their pace measured, and elocution clear)

Beyond gestures and words, meaning is conveyed and received through cultural prisms. Interviewers will have to adapt if, for example, they are low context communicators operating in a high context culture like China.

What does “fit” mean in a cross-cultural context?

International candidates will often have a different professional trajectory compared to English counterparts, and we can assume, even without deep country expertise, that management practices in China will be different to those in the U.K. How does one assess for compatibility then?

Assessing cross-culturally will dictate a focus on adaptability and transferable skills rather than a like-for-like fit.  Emotional intelligence will be key as well, in fitting in with culturally different teams.

Also, the motivation and readiness for an expatriate assignment are key. Why has the candidate chosen the country of destination? What do they know about it? How will their family fit in?

Interview techniques; while interview formats vary across sectors, some pointers will specifically help in the context of cross- cultural interviews:

As intimated above, the interview structure should be culturally adapted to produce results. For Chinese candidates, given their relationship-based culture, it is beneficial to ease-in candidates by starting out with introductions and personal questions, before delving into specifics and a competency based evaluation.

We have also recommended introducing case-scenarios that would permit interviewers to observe candidates trouble-shooting in real time, going beyond language and its potential pitfalls.

Finally, we have looked at the interview panel set-up and a pre-agreed evaluation grid which would help rate candidates on multiple criteria such as rapport/communication, language, motivation, adaptation capacity and technical skills.

What are your best-practices for cross-culture interviewing skills, both as the interviewer and the candidate? Have you found certain tactics that easily transcend across cultures? Share your thoughts with us on the challenges and opportunities of cross-culture interviewing in the comments section below.

Felicia Schwartz has spent 13 years in China and is the founder of China Insight, a consultancy that connects business to consumer insight and culture across China and Europe.

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