RECRUITMENT: Dealing with Difference – A Diverse Workforce

It’s curious how something “normal” in one culture is considered offensive in another. Recruitment and selection processes are no exception. I’ve often heard the following in conversations with management in New Zealand over the past five years:

• “The people who apply for the jobs we post on our company website have no relevant experience.”
• “Their résumés look very different from what we expect. And as for cover letters!”
• “Applicants behave oddly in interviews.”

Most of the countries from which immigrants come to New Zealand are more hierarchical, formal and collective. In such countries the process to recruit new employees is approximately the same (job creation and posting, résumé collection and screening, interviews for candidate selection, probation period), but each of these steps is conducted in very different manner from local practices. In order to select the best people we must be aware of cultural differences which can thwart the process.

Common complaints about résumés:
Unusual layout In many hierarchical cultures such as India, China, the Middle East, and South American countries like Chile, candidates are considered qualified when they meet specific education requirement. Here, people are often considered qualified to do the job when they can demonstrate they have the right attributes and experience in that field. In hierarchical countries, with assumed unequal distribution of power, corporations determine the potential and qualifications of people based on the degrees and the reputation of the university from which they graduated.
The résumés of many recent immigrants start with education. New Zealand résumés highlight the match between the applicant’s own experience and the experience required to do the job.

Odd cover letters The cover letters of Muslim candidates may contain statements such as: “I pray to God you’ll consider my application.” In Arabic this statement has sense since in Islam, only God controls the future. It is also protocol in many Arab countries. For most local recruiters and managers, God is not involved in the recruitment process.
Cover letters include statements like:
• I am an IT specialist; I can do anything with computers.
• I am project manager; I can manage any kind of project.
Such statements can make local recruiters think, “Yeah right. You’re trying to fool me or you’re fooling yourself. We are looking for someone who knows what to do, not someone who wants to learn on the job.”

Over-the-top deference Applicants from hierarchical cultures see themselves in subordinate position relative to the recruiter. As result, in both cover letters and interviews, they try to show deference and respect in ways that our more informally inclined recruiters in New Zealand do not notice or find annoying or inappropriate. For example, culturally different employees may: Use very formal and “flowery language” in cover letter; stand until they are told explicitly to sit down; keep calling recruiters sir or madam even after recruiters have asked them to use their first name; refer to people who are interviewing them by their title rather than their name; avoid direct eye contact and often look down at the floor or avert their eyes to the side.

Inappropriate information New Zealand employment law means that candidates do not provide information like their age, sex, place of origin, marital status or number of dependants. Conversely French résumés routinely expect age, marital status, citizenship and number of dependants.

Accomplishments. What accomplishments? New Zealand recruiters often look at the candidates’ accomplishments. The concept of accomplishments is highly cultural and mostly an Anglo-Saxon concept. In Catholic and East Asian countries people do not put themselves forward; others do it for them. Candidates are expected to downplay what they have done.

So how do you level the playing field and ensure you are open to the best possible candidates, regardless of background or culture? Explain in detail the recruitment process used in your organisation. This can be done posting on the organisation’s website, with flow chart, sample interview questions, sample résumés. Be culturally self-aware and consider just how culturally prescribed the recruitment and selection process is. Understand that many of your behaviours as recruiters will be mystery to the candidate.
Canvass assessment tests for cultural bias. Anglo-Saxon cultures and values are often implicitly embedded in the tests through vocabulary, situations, and expectations.
Ask for evaluations of academic credentials by organisations that specialise in comparing education standards around the world. For example, NZQA Qualification Recognition Service can help assess the equivalence of degrees; is helpful for more comprehensive checking.

Taruni Falconer is managing director of Intercultural Dynamics, New Zealand’s first intercultural training and consulting company.

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