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Global Diversity Series: How Cultural Differences Impact the Interview Process

Jun 05, 2023
Asian-looking young man, sitting at a desk in what appears to be an interview.


Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to sit on many hiring committees.

And I have seen time and again certain exclusionary practices come alive during the interview process—especially with culturally diverse candidates. I will address a few of them below.


Language Accent

Nothing sets off alarm bells faster than a candidate speaking with a language accent.

That is because accents tend to be equated with a possible lack of language proficiency or lack of understanding. While this may be true in some cases, the reality is that a candidate’s accent has very little to do with their ability to communicate.

In fact, what should be going through your mind is the fact that this candidate is at least bilingual, which, in today’s shrinking world and increasingly global economy, this candidate could be a tremendous asset to the organization.


Differences in the Use of Silence

I have also seen how silence and pauses during the interview can be misinterpreted.

For U.S. Americans of European descent, for example, silence can feel very uncomfortable or awkward as it may signal a possible breakdown in communication. Because of that, interviewers often feel compelled to fill those awkward moments with uncertainty-reduction strategies such as asking additional questions or making additional comments.

For many groups, though, silence is a way of communicating respect and deference and is an important aspect of their communication process. The “silent” candidate may very well be trying to understand what is being said (e.g., translating) or taking time to formulate the best possible response.

Those sitting on hiring committees must understand that silence communicates as much as the spoken word. While pauses can sometimes indicate that something has gone wrong, it is also possible that it is being utilized to achieve better communication.

The best strategy for those sitting on hiring committees is to become more comfortable with the absence of words during the interview, avoid interjecting, and give the candidate the time to formulate their best thoughts.


Differences in Communication Styles

Another potential problem in interviews has to do with a difference in communication style.

In the United States, the preferred style of communication in most situations is the “direct style” where candidates tell it like it is, are less likely to imply and more likely to say what they are thinking. During an interview, short, direct, and concise answers are often expected and valued by hiring committees. In fact, these are the candidates who are often judged to have high intellectual aptitude.

Other candidates, however, may choose a more “indirect” approach and feel they can best express their ideas or address the issue at hand by telling a story. This could potentially be a problem because hiring committees may assume the indirect communicator candidate has gone off on a tangent or lost their train of thought.

While individuals in all cultures may be more or less direct and the style they choose will depend on the context or situation at hand, it is important that those in the hiring committee, at the very least, recognize style differences before evaluating a potential candidate negatively.

In other words, remember that the way a candidate answers a question may have more to do with their thought pattern and communication style than with their ability to perform. 


A Few Suggestions for Making Interviews More Inclusive

In every interview, hiring committees have to wrestle with the following dilemma: Are we bringing the best candidate in or are we aiming for (either consciously or unconsciously) a candidate who will best match existing organizational norms?

Keep in mind that values such as showing initiative, aggressively seeking a promotion, accepting public praise, speaking up in meetings, dealing with problems in an open manner, and communicating directly are U.S. mainstream values. 

A deviation from these values needs to be seen for what it really is: a difference in style and not the inability to perform.

Truly inclusive environments allow for their workforce to be themselves. In fact, candidates should never be expected to leave essential parts of their identity at the proverbial “company gate”.

In a global economy and in order to serve their organization well, those serving in selection committees need to have highly developed cultural competence skills. That is, they need to

a) be aware that differences exist (in self and others),

b) have knowledge and understanding of what those differences are, and

c) have the skills to adjust their way of thinking to the cultural orientation of others, be it a candidate’s nationality, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, ability, or sexual orientation.

If hiring committees do not notice, learn about, or respond appropriately to the diverse candidates knocking on their doors, they will be greatly jeopardizing their company’s ability to become truly diverse and inclusive.

So, before your next round of interviews, think about the following:

  • How does my worldview help or hinder my understanding of a candidate’s perspective?
  • How much awareness do I have of behaviors that have variable meanings?
  • How might my awareness (or lack of awareness) of different behaviors affect the way I evaluate potential job candidates?
  • What do I need to learn about a candidate’s cultural background to ensure I can relate and communicate effectively with them?
  • What biases do I have and how will they impact the way I evaluate candidates? Keep in mind that biases prevent us from judging potential candidates for who they really are which, in turn, undermines our ability to be fair and equitable.

Hiring committee members are uniquely positioned in a way that they serve as the "gateway" into the organization. In other words, their role is to screen candidates and decide who is the best fit for the position. 

If organizations are striving for a diverse workforce, it is essential that individuals serving on hiring committees understand the role their biases and lack of cultural competence play in hindering this process. Keep in mind that, whether you know it or not, evaluating candidates according to expectations formed by your own culturally based and dominant value orientations will hinder efforts to bring diversity in.

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