Seven Tips for Interviewing Culturally Diverse Candidates

By Lynda Goldman

Monster Diversity Expert

Picture your ideal candidates. They arrive for the interview on time and smartly dressed to project a professional image. Their handshakes are firm, their smiles bright, and they stand tall and speak with confidence. They make such a great first impression that you feel like hiring them on the spot.

Now picture the opposite candidates. They arrive a few minutes late. They are dressed conservatively, but possibly not stylishly — perhaps too formally. Their handshakes are soft and weak — or too strong and vigorous. They avoid eye contact and speak softly. Or they look you up and down and stand too close for comfort. All you can think of is how uncomfortable you feel and what a poor impression they make. They have a lot to overcome before you even consider hiring them.

Welcome to the world of interviewing culturally diverse candidates. At job interviews, candidates behave in ways that they believe will demonstrate how suited they are for the job. But this behaviour is based on what is important in their culture – which may be quite different from Canada.

When you encounter body language that you makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s tempting to write off the candidates because you feel they won’t fit into your workplace. Once you are aware of these cultural differences, you can put them into context so that you look more deeply at the candidate’s skills and experience.

Here are seven areas of body language to look out for in candidates from other cultures:

1. Eye contact: Making eye contact is a sign of respect and confidence in Canada, and candidates who avoid eye contact give the impression that they lack confidence, are hiding something, or are not trustworthy. In other cultures, making eye contact is considered highly disrespectful, and avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect. So a candidate from Asia or the Middle East who avoids eye contact is actually showing you respect.

2. Handshake: A firm handshake is another sign of confidence in Canada. But in Asian cultures, a soft, weak handshake is the norm. And in some cultures, people shake hands vigorously for a longer time, and may put their left hand on your elbow, which may feel invasive to some people. As well, a candidate from a culture where men and women don’t shake hands may feel uncomfortable shaking hands with an interviewer of the opposite sex.

3. Smiling: A warm smile is a welcoming gesture from an interviewer, and when a candidate returns the smile, both people connect. Asians may smile when they are embarrassed, or to conceal discomfort, and Germans “only smile when there is something to smile about.” It can be disconcerting to talk to candidates who never crack a smile, or who smile when you consider it inappropriate.

4. Gestures: In Canada, a nod means agreement, but Indians roll their heads from side to side to indicate agreement. Canadian recruiters may interpret this as disagreement. In other cultures, people move their head down to indicate agreement — which is usually mistaken for disagreement here.

5. Body odours: Smells can greet you before you exchange words. Canadians are very conscious of odours, and expect candidates to be fresh and clean. In some cultures, people use strong perfumes and colognes, which may turn off Canadian recruiters. Food smells such as garlic or spices, or body odours, may also lead recruiters to cross candidates off their list right away.

6. Space wars: Candidates who come too close for comfort may cause recruiters to retreat. Canadians are used to wide open spaces, and feel invaded when someone encroaches in their personal space. In most countries, the population is more dense and people are used to standing closer together. A candidate who moves closer is attempting to connect, but Canadians may not see it that way.

7. Showing emotion: In places such as East Asia, people do not show emotions openly in a business setting, and may be perceived as not being interested in the job. On the other hand, some Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans, and Arabs may show more emotion that we are used to in the workplace, and may be perceived as not being in control. The amount of emotion we display in the workplace is also based on culture.

So how do you filter all these variations in body language to find the best candidate for the job? First, remember that while basic body language (facial expressions of joy, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise) is universal, most of the body language we use in the workplace is learned behaviour. We didn’t all grow up knowing how to shake hands with a business contact. We learned it by observing people in the business community; through a book or training course; or from a manager, colleague, or mentor.

Most immigrants are very motivated to learn what it takes to succeed in Canada. They will gladly practise firm handshakes and eye contact for meeting clients, if it will help them advance in their careers. It just takes a bit of insight and coaching. Don’t pass up skilled and talented people — help them understand the Canadian workplace culture and integrate into your organization, so everyone wins.

Adapted from You’re Hired…Now What? An Immigrant’s Guide to Success in the Canadian Workplace by Lynda Goldman