Behavior Interviews in an Intercultural Context

Maureen Rabotin, CEO and founder
Effective Global Leadership •

The behavioral interview technique — one used by employers to evaluate a candidate’s past experiences and behaviors in order to determine their future potential for success — is once again on the rise in companies across the U.S. According to Career Services at SUNY Brockport, currently 30 percent of all organizations are using behavioral interviewing techniques in some manner.

Why is this technique so popular? Because, presumably, it works. U.S-based surveys like that done by Quintessential Careers mentioned in the article titled Behavioral Interviewing Strategies for Job-Seekers by Katharine Hansen have shown that behavior interviewing is 55 percent predictive of future on-the-job behavior, while traditional interviewing is only 10 percent predictive.

Another factor contributing to the growing use of behavior interviewing, according to a December 2007 survey conducted by the Novations Group, is the broad demographic shift underway in the workplace. According to Tim Vigue, Novations executive consultant, “An increasingly diverse talent pool demands that organizations hire the best from the broadest possible pool. To do so employers have to use objective methods that won’t screen out qualified candidates due to bias.”

Implied then is the fact that behavior interviews are fair and take into account the diversity of applicants. But, do behavior interviews take into account the diversity of the job for which the candidate is interviewing? Does the popular technique consider the intercultural contexts of the job? Can behavioral interview questions accurately assess whether a candidate’s past experiences will predict success or failure in an intercultural, international assignment?

Bob’s Behavior and What It Tells Us About Our Own

Meet Bob. Bob graduated at the top of his class at one of the most prestigious universities in Texas and then went on to finish his MBA while maintaining a rigorous and demanding position at a top corporation in the food industry. Bob’s greatest asset was his charismatic approach; he was a real down-to-earth, people person — and the company had taken notice. Bob was up for an international assignment and passed the interview (which included both conventional and behavior-based questions) with flying colors.

Here is an example of how Bob thought he had nailed the interview. When he was asked by the interviewer, “What do you do when working on a tight schedule with several priorities? Give an example of how you handle this,” he responded like a S.T.A.R. Bob’s answer started with the perfect Situation, moved into dealing with a specific Task, and went on to explain his Action orientation on prioritizing projects to meet deadlines and the successful Result of surpassing expectations. In fact, his response went something like this: “Due to extenuating circumstances, our team project was moving forward on a very tight schedule. The project was nearing deadline. Two of the team members had sales forecasts to finish up for a meeting the following Monday. With my urging, the team agreed to stay late, work through dinner and meet late Sunday to wrap up both our sales forecasts and tie up some loose ends on a procurement proposal that needed to be revised. By gearing up the team’s motivation through commitment and accountability, we were able to easily finish everything with time to spare. By Monday morning, everyone was satisfied with the results. Of course, this is not my preferred way of time management, but when everyone on the team is motivated, you can move mountains.”

Bob seemed to have the perfect U.S. corporate culture, “can-do” attitude. That, however, turned out to be the problem.

Bob got the job and was hired to run the newly acquired Spanish office in Madrid. After several “discussions” with his superiors, Bob was brought back to reassume his position in the U.S.

Why did he fail at his international assignment?

According to the HR director at the Madrid office, “We hire people who resemble us.” In the Madrid office, a sure hire’s response would be more in tune with family values (paternalistic), personal honor and dignity. In Spain, human relations count far more than logic or efficiency. Spaniards influence colleagues with personal appeal — not rules, regulations or deadlines. They do not like being rushed and no one is ever too busy when asked to lend an ear. Thus, in Spain, when a candidate is asked, “What do you do when working on a tight schedule with several priorities? Give an example of how you handle this,” a S.T.A.R. might give the following answer: “When our project team was working on a tight schedule, we knew that the deadlines were out of reach. Knowing that the extenuating circumstances were beyond our control, there was little we could do to meet the deadlines imposed by headquarters. To ease everybody’s sense of urgency and stress, I made sure that the team members were following the instructions I had clearly defined for them at the outset of the project. Plus, they knew they could count on me to take the responsibility for any delays. We worked late into the night preparing some presentations to explain where the project was expected to be delayed, and of course, we finished our sales forecasts for the upcoming year.”

See the marked difference in the responses? Bob’s efficiency was totally out of synch with the relationship-building, hierarchal and paternalistic structure of the newly acquired Spanish company — a company that needed a culturally sensitive, effective manager (especially during the integration phase), not an achievement and profitability-focused number cruncher.

The reason that the company could not determine if Bob’s style and approach would integrate well with the Spanish division is because the right questions weren’t evaluated in the right contexts. The behavioral interview questions were evaluated ethnocentrically, giving great credit to answers that could only be predictive of success or failure in U.S-based positions. So, is behavior interviewing effective when screening for international positions? The answer is yes, but with modifications.

A Different Paradigm Calls for Different Questions, Different Evaluation Contexts

The behavior interview is based on the theory that past behavior is often a good indicator of future behavior. By framing questions on knowledge, skills and abilities that are the basis of the competencies needed for the required position, the results should show how well a candidate may or may not succeed in the position. But, how do we interpret answers that indicate success in international positions when the questions are written and asked within a U.S. paradigm? How do we assess the “right” answer if the evaluation is not culturally adapted for the position? We educate the interviewer, ask different questions and listen for different answers.

First, educate the interviewer about this paradigm shift. This involves:

• A comprehensive understanding of the position’s location and culture

• An understanding of the behavioral skill sets required to succeed in a position located in a country with a completely different cultural context

• Homework — proper probing of the candidate’s previous expatriate or international assignments

• An understanding and awareness of one’s own cultural biases, pre-conceived judgments, values and assumptions

• A consideration of the cultural frameworks and job “fit” of the candidate’s national culture compared to that of the destination country

• An appreciation of the adaptability and flexibility particular to a candidate with previous expatriate experience

• Insight into what makes a person successful in international assignments, especially those who have been on the global nomad track, sacrificing family and home security for challenges and the need to add value to the global organization ( i.e., how do characteristics like independence and self-reliance work with a group-oriented, family-style culture?)

• Familiarity — interviewers of applicants for international positions should have had an expatriate or international experience of their own in order to better frame their questions

• Language proficiency — interviewers who speak more than one language are preferred so there is a sensibility with respect to vocabulary, articulation and word choice

Secondly, think through how to elicit the responses you need to make a determination. For example, if you know that to succeed in this position, a candidate must be a team player, discover unique ways to phrase questions that will prompt the candidate to speak about collaborative experiences. As you brainstorm questions, choose situations and words that work within an international context. If this process causes you anxiety, enlist the help of a cross cultural training consultant who is familiar with the cultural contexts of myriad international locations.

As an example, Bob’s interviewer should have know that to succeed in business in Madrid, an understanding of the following were required: a hierarchical system; family-first culture; flexible attitudes with respect to time and physical closeness; national and personal pride; and care and concern for others. Thus, examples of the questions he/she could have asked to determine if Bob had these understandings include:

• Tell me about a time when you felt pressured for time and a colleague needed to discuss an issue with you. How did you react? What options did you consider? (Answers would speak to time management in a polychronic culture.) :

• Give me an example when you felt frustrated over an ethical decision by your superior or departmental manager. What actions did you take to resolve your inner conflict? (Answers would speak to hierarchy issues in a protocol-oriented culture.) :

• Give me an example when family matters prevented you from giving your utmost at work. How did you handle that? How would you handle that situation if it involved an employee? (Answers would speak to time in relation to a family-oriented, work-to-live culture.) :

Next, draft the questions and have an HR counterpart at the international destination review them for cultural context and sensitivity.

Finally, analyze the candidate’s answers with the destination HR counterpart and with a wide lens. Based on the candidate’s answers, evaluate:

• How will this candidate’s behaviors be perceived by colleagues and superiors within this context? :

• How well do the candidate’s characteristics translate across cultural and linguistic boundaries? :

• How well will this candidate fit into the new organizational culture? :

• How capable will this candidate be in influencing local team players? In developing senior, local and regional-based employees? :

• How will this candidate recognize the motivational drivers of the employees in the new contexts? :

• What level of observation skills does this candidate have? How comfortable is he/she with listening more than talking, observing more than participating? :

• What will need to be taken into consideration if this candidate is accepted for this international assignment? Is there a dual career issue? An aging parent concern? Childcare and educational issues to take into account? :

• In general, what are the risks, what is the potential for success? What is the cost of early repatriation to the company? • :

Although our Western-style need to standardize, structure and measure performance will resist change, we need to remind ourselves that in an increasingly flattened world, change is necessary. In today’s global marketplace, we must take into consideration the context within which we measure success. This means rethinking the behavioral interview process when it comes to interviewing candidates for international assignments and taking a long, hard look at the ethnocentrism that has pervaded the hiring process for far too long. The result will be better hires and a faster integration of corporate and functional cultures in a boundary-less world.

Maureen Rabotin, CEO and founder of Effective Global Leadership, is a Global Executive Coach and Cross Cultural Training Consultant. She has coached and trained more than 450 global leaders representing 125 Fortune 500 companies. For more information, please visit