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Cultural Perceptions when Interviewing Job Candidates

How do you decide if a job candidate would be a good fit for your department or company and if an employee should be promoted to a very different department?

Fit is typically determined through in-depth interviews—preferably in person (assuming the individual has the key competencies needed to perform the job). You or a team of your colleagues prepare some questions, often behavioral in nature, so you can predict future success in your organizational environment based on past behavior.

But as experience probably has shown you, the content of the candidate’s answers is never the only factor involved in the decision to hire or promote. There is the matter of communication skills and style, and, of course, body language. There is also demeanor and degree of enthusiasm or lack of the same, not to mention dress and all the other building blocks of first impressions.

And then there is the matter of assumptions we human beings make based on preconceived ideas or unspoken cultural notions. When overlaid with any of the above factors, these assumptions can mean the undoing of a perfectly good candidate—and the loss of valuable talent.

Case 1:

Steven Chan is applying for a job as a project manager. The team that interviews him notes that he rarely makes eye contact with anyone who speaks to him and that he describes all accomplishments as team efforts and successes. The interviewers conclude that Steven is not leadership material so he is not offered the position.

The problem? That is probably not the case. In most Asian cultures people do not make eye contact as a sign of respect—not because they aren’t leadership material. Also, Asians—whether foreign or U.S.-born—tend to achieve by persistence, not by the relentless setting and resetting of externally driven goals.

Case 2:
Another example is that of Carlos Pérez who is ready for a promotion based on his demonstrated abilities. But Carlos describes his management style in terms of people skills. “I get along with everyone,” he states during the interview. So he is not offered the promotion.

The problem? Interviewers may assume Carlos doesn’t understand the skills involved in management. Without further questions, they may never know. In the Latino culture, which is very relationship-oriented, being liked by others is often the first step in gaining the respect needed to be a good manager.

Case 3:

Elena Rodriguez is also ready for a promotion but hasn’t said that she is interested in taking such a step. So her manager never includes her in the slate of possible candidates.

The problem? Her manager may be assuming that, because she is a Latina and has a family, she will not want to take on additional responsibilities. Whether or not that is true, her boss will never know unless the question is asked directly. You see, in most cases, Latinos expect to be asked to be promoted. That is a byproduct of cultural upbringing.

The next time you interview diverse candidates, check your assumptions at the door. Many mainstream behaviors seen in these situations do not have the same meaning for people of different backgrounds—even if they were born in the United States.


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