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Overcoming Differences

Interviewing candidates for positions in China presents unique challenges for Western businesses. Here's a primer for ensuring the interview process goes smoothly.

Monday, April 3, 2006
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Interviewing candidates for professional positions in China presents challenges to the employer as well as those being interviewed.

Because of the communication that must take place across one or more cultural divides, the tensions found in a conventional domestic interview situation are often magnified. In the case of a preliminary telephone or video screen, it's likely the candidate will have woken up quite early or remained awake quite late because of the time difference. This may affect his or her presentation and ability to quickly or smoothly respond to questions.

There are several useful tactics that can make the interview process easier and more productive for Chinese candidates and Western interviewers.

Setting the Schedule

It is customary to call the candidate in his or her home or on their mobile phone. In advance of setting up the interview, the employer and candidate should exchange e-mail notes to confirm the date and time.

Given the time difference, it pays to be flexible in terms of when the call is scheduled. Recruiters may consider setting an appointment for time that may not be especially convenient for them and their colleagues, but is helpful to the candidate. This is a nice accommodation, and shows the company respects the candidate's accomplishments and their often compressed schedules.

It is also recommended to use the military or twenty-four hour time convention. For example, if the call is to be placed at 6:00 p.m. from Denver, specify "1800 hours."

Who's on First?

In the event the branch office or executive recruiter didn't do a thorough job of informing the candidate about the company, providing a snapshot of the interview team so the company can ease some of the candidate's apprehension. In the final confirmation e-mail sent prior to the interview, a list of names and titles of those who will participate in the call is helpful.

In advance of the call, assign a "captain" or interview leader to moderate the conversation. Three Western colleagues talking at once will confuse the candidate.

To this point, it is useful to write a list of questions for the candidate and determine in advance which member of the team will ask each question. The moderator should announce him or herself, explain their role and then ask the other members to introduce themselves one at a time.

Target the length of the interview to about 30 minutes.

Before launching directly into a list of interview questions, it's advisable to make small talk with the candidate. Better still are questions indicating you know a bit about life in China. While sports, art, regional cuisines or pop music may be safe topics, it's best to stay away from all discussion of politics, foreign or domestic.

Do You Understand Me?

By the time the initial interview has been scheduled, the initial vetting of the candidates has been completed, and the company will know their theoretical English language abilities.

Most Chinese professionals have had formal English education since sixth grade, and have a good command of reading, writing and the spoken word.

However, speaking ability in a second language falls off markedly when using the telephone. This is especially the case when speaking to strangers. As noted earlier, slowly warming up the interviewee with informal chit-chat is a good idea.

It's worth noting that even well-educated Chinese with good test scores may have never spoken directly to a native English speaker. Think about learning to swim via a correspondence course without ever having jumped into a pool.

Make an effort to speak slowly and clearly, minimize the use of contractions and slang. Avoid asking questions in the negative form. For example, asking, "Don't you like basketball?" will leave the candidate mystified. Instead, try "Do you like basketball?"

Unlike most Americans and Europeans, Chinese are rather humble and will minimize their educational and professional accomplishments. In Chinese society, it's considered blatant bragging to be too forward in presenting an "elevator speech."

As a result, the candidate may seem evasive or difficult to solicit information from. With this in mind, try restating the question in a slightly different way. It is also acceptable to ask the candidate to elaborate on a key job, task or experience in their past professional or academic career.

Also, questions about job transitions are difficult in Chinese culture and are often met with incomplete or odd-sounding responses. The more deep the probe, the more peculiar the response may seem. Don't be surprised to hear, "My father was ill, so I had to return to our village to care for him," or "Because of the electrical power shortages in Anhui province, I decided to relocate to Jiangsu province."

Bear in mind the true reasons for leaving a job in China are rarely discussed frankly. A good approach to learn more about work history is to ask detailed questions about job elements the candidate found enjoyable or unrewarding.

Who's on Second?

Chinese job candidates cannot drive by the company's headquarters, chat up employees at local pubs or talk with competitors or suppliers, or do much of anything else to learn about a company's culture.

They will do quite a bit of research on a company's background in advance of the interview, so the organization should be prepared for some very detailed questions about technologies, competitors, company financial status, internal organization, customer base and, most importantly, growth goals for the company's operation in China.

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If the questions seem intrusive, please remember they have fewer tools at their disposal to assess the culture and reputation of the company.

By Western standards, Chinese professionals may seem inordinately concerned about job title and reporting structure. This may be one subject where a shy candidate emerges from his or her shell.

Attention to this point can be attributed to the "top down" nature of Chinese business society. China's mercantile culture is at least 5,000 years old, and a foreign company won't be able to turn this element around overnight. Be ready to assign a more complex or glorious title than was planned.

Concluding the Interview

As the end of the interview approaches, summarizing the key points covered and recounting the candidate's answers to important questions is a useful exercise.

Ask the interviewee if they feel the need to clarify any of their responses or make any additional points. It's proper form to go over each key point in granular detail. The candidate will appreciate the chance to set the record straight or reinforce an important point or two. This will also be good preparation for the organization, as this protocol is often followed in conventional business meetings in China.

At the conclusion of the interview, thank the candidate for his or her time and indicate exactly when and how they will be informed of the next step in the process.

If the decision is made to move ahead and hold a face-to-face interview, it is probably best to plan a visit to China.

Many Western governments make it difficult for Chinese individuals to visit the United States unless they are sponsored by an employer. This becomes all the more difficult for unmarried candidates when trying to bring them to the United States as the U.S. Department of Immigration views unmarried Chinese as prone to overstay their visitors' visas.

Should the candidate be in possession of a visa, they are unlikely to hold a driver's license, so door-to-door transportation arrangements should be made.

Chinese candidates are generally well-prepared and will make a strong effort to be open, communicate clearly and pick up on the company's culture and background. They recognize this is as much a challenge for you the interviewer as it is for them. If the interviewer is open in return, uses careful and metered delivery and listens well, the interview will be productive.

Jack Daniels is president of Boston-based EastBridge Partners, an international consulting group specializing in business development in China. With more than 24 years experience in engineering, manufacturing, operations, marketing and sales, finance, regulatory compliance and international business development, he has lived and worked in China and the Republic of Korea. The former director of Asian operations of Rogers Corp., he has also worked in executive roles for GE Plastics and Taconic Plastics, where he launched several subsidiaries and joint ventures in the Asia-Pacific region.

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