Opinion: "Cross-cultural interviews can be quite stressful situations"

Author: Felicia Schwartz

Founder of China Insight on the challenges of interviewing someone from the other side of the world

Felicia SchwartzFelicia Schwartz has spent 13 years in China and is the founder of a China Insight, a consultancy that connects European and Chinese organisations. Here she discusses the challenges of interviewing and evaluating someone from a completely different cultural background.

"I was recently asked to conduct a workshop for the HR team of an energy company hiring new staff from China," says Schwartz. "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 that arise when interviewing across cultures."

Difficulties in interviewing across cultures
"Cross-cultural interviews can be quite stressful situations. The interviewer must assess a candidate whose experiences fall outside the norms they are used to. Looking at their CV, no familiar benchmarks come up; schools, maybe even former employers, might draw a blank. The person in front of them does not sound, act or react the way local candidates do.

"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 – assumptions that may well probably be wrong. So we have the perfect storm for misunderstanding and miscommunication."

The value of cross-cultural intelligence
"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 they do not have the time for lengthy specific cultural training, a useful first step is simply gaining self-awareness and moving onto more neutral terrain. That means maintaining an open attitude, and proactively looking for solution if the conversation gets stuck."

Nuances of communication
"Several aspects of communication need to be considered. Body language differs across cultures; what does it mean when a Chinese candidate keeps averting their gaze? In Asia, it is impolite to fix someone’s gaze for a length of time but an interviewer from the UK might find this behaviour strange.

"What about language and how to render one’s English more comprehensible to an non-native speaker? Observing English natives who have spent a long time overseas helps because their English tends to be neutral, avoids colloquialisms, their pace is measured, and elocution clear."

Interview structure
"The interview structure should be culturally adapted. 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 observing candidates trouble-shooting, going beyond language and its potential pitfalls.

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