Recruiting Across Cultures – One Size Does Not Fit All

When scaling out a talent management program such as a wide-screening selection initiative, ensuring accurate interpretation of candidates’ assessment results across a team of recruiters is challenging in and of itself. That challenge is immeasurably amplified when these candidates hail from different regions and cultures, where expectations on an employee can vary wildly from those of headquarters. For HR leaders at multinational corporations, or at organizations operating in countries that share a talent pool with culturally distinct neighbors, this challenge tends to arise more often than not, and has been intensely magnified by the recent shifts in the macro-business landscape.

The recent global economic turmoil galvanized the localization of jobs across the world and resulted in organizational charts catering to the new era of emerging-market consumers. As companies quickly strategized to make up for the sagging established customer bases and to capitalize on diversity of perspective, indigenous benefactors of the developing world were suddenly being considered for jobs where they were asked to carry twice the responsibility of their expat predecessors—and to do so with half the resources and little if any preparation. Though the eye of the initial financial storm has since passed, it seems those in the talent management industry forgot to ask the most pertinent question when it came to deploying recruitment models across the globe: When we apply our recruitment processes and evaluation models in different regions, do our standard interpretations still hold?

Culture is nuanced, and so are the resulting leadership expectations. Even though the trademarks of a leader tend to be similar across boundaries, how those characteristics manifest behaviorally, and the consequential way to interpret assessment results, can vary by location. Take for example the age-old favorite “Drive”. No country in the world denies there’s a preference for driven leaders. Drive, and its many vague definitions, can seem to some countries (like the US, Germany and Australia) as unfettered self-initiation and a proactive method of taking charge; based on strivings for power, status and reward anticipation. Accordingly, those who decide first and rally followership later tend to appear more leader-like to their colleagues. However, in more consensus-driven societies such behaviors rarely rise through the ranks. Rather, in places like Mainland China, Japan and South Korea, those considered leaders tend to focus more on being dependable, self-disciplined and achievement-oriented; in these locations those who generate alignment first and then push forward are more likely to have the leadership label ascribed to them. Thus, when recruiters apply a Western-centric evaluation model of Drive to selection scenarios in Northeast Asia they often come up empty-handed. Ironically, it appears to indicate that those populating the managerial ranks in the fastest growing economies lack basic intrinsic motivation.

Now, the need for such informed understanding of where recruitment models can go wrong in another culture isn’t always as imperative across the board. A pilot is still a pilot whether he or she works for United, Qantas or Korean Air. With the technical nature of the job and the specific environment in which a pilot is expected to operate, job requirements trump cultural differences and certain individuals’ profiles just won’t work out well in terms of performance. However, when it comes to general leadership recruitment or high potential identification across regions, it’s important to ask ourselves whether our evaluation lens is focused too sharply on our own culturally-informed leadership behaviors. If they are, we will likely miss out on key hires; and even if we find someone who fits our aspiring universal mold, they may face unforeseen challenges as they struggle to fit the expectations of their local subordinates.


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