Interview Tips for Hiring Foreign National Workers

Q&A with Ken Zwerdling

By Roy Maurer Apr 27, 2015

Interviewing a non-U.S. applicant could be very different than what you’re used to.

SHRM Online discussed HR concerns when interviewing foreign national candidates with Ken Zwerdling, CEO of Foreign Staffing Inc., a global staffing and recruiting firm.

SHRM Online: What are some of the main differences that HR must be aware of when interviewing non-U.S. applicants?

Zwerdling: There are several differences but also similarities. When interviewing a foreign national for a position located within the United States, most of the questions are the same. These questions cover education, training and job skills. You can also ask why the applicant chooses to work in the United States and if he or she is familiar with American business practices. Also ask if the applicant is familiar with the customs and languages of countries other than [his or her] own, as this could be an asset to your company.

The fundamental difference is found in the laws governing certain questions that in the United States are illegal while in other countries are not only commonplace but actually required.

One of the most blatant questions that in the U.S. is strictly forbidden but absolutely normal [in some countries] is asking about race and religion.

Certainly when interviewing foreign nationals for employment in any country that is not their own, it is vital to ask whether the candidate is already legal to work in the country and already in possession of a work visa, or will the company need to sponsor one? Depending on the company’s willingness to sponsor a foreign worker, including these requirements and limitations within the job description will ensure that only those who fit the criteria will apply.

SHRM Online: What kinds of interview questions are concerns?

Zwerdling: The United States is a huge conglomeration of folks who look different, speak differently, and may have wide-ranging cultural attitudes and behaviors. And while all of these variations make the U.S. what it is, interviewers cannot legally ask candidates about ancestry, religion, marital status, children or political beliefs. These same laws and regulations that apply when hiring Americans also apply when hiring foreign employees. You may not ask questions regarding race, gender, religion, political opinions, sexual orientation, age or health questions.

At the same time, an interviewer is fully supported in asking a candidate why there is a desire to work in the United States and if the candidate has any familiarity with U.S. customs and the English language. When foreign companies are hiring employees who will be required to relocate, many times the job position demands a specific type of person. For example, a company needs Chinese sales staff to relocate to Dubai. The company has listed specifics about the candidates that include gender, age range, marital status, children, religion and even political beliefs. Obviously these questions are totally prohibited in the United States.

SHRM Online: What about concerns around cultural etiquette?

Zwerdling: While most U.S. businesses adhere to certain rules of etiquette when interviewing American applicants, there are other guidelines when interviewing foreign applicants. Americans tend toward the familiar rather than the formal in relationships and this does not always transfer well. While it is sometimes permissible to use a shortened version of a person’s name, that level of familiarity should never be assumed. In fact, when dealing with foreigners in any capacity, it is always best to err on the side of caution and use more formalities until guided to do otherwise. Always use the person’s full name and of course ask if there is a preference to what name is to be used. Remember too that formal does not mean unfriendly. Because hierarchy can be much more rigid around the globe, being too familiar could make the applicant ill at ease. At the same time, learning and using the applicant’s native customary greeting will be warmly welcomed and show that you are open to learning something of their culture. As the culture of each country is different, it is helpful to learn some of the do’s and don’ts in the cultures of these potential foreign employees.

SHRM Online: What kinds of technology can be helpful when interviewing candidates overseas?

Zwerdling: The technology in the recruiting industry is rapidly changing and advancing. In the past, almost all interviews were done face-to-face. Today with Skype and other virtual tools, real-time video interviews of potential candidates located anywhere in the world is easy and often cost-free. This new technology is a complete game changer in the recruiting industry for interviewing long-distance domestic candidates and especially when interviewing foreign candidates. In a 30-minute real-time video interview, an interviewer can instantly determine the applicant’s level of English fluency. Many applicants will state an ability to speak English but when interviewed, it becomes quite obvious that the necessary language requirements are missing. This type of interviewing saves tremendous time and expense by weeding out many candidates in a first round of interviews.

If real-time virtual interviewing is not easily achieved, another option is having foreign candidates record and submit a video presentation of themselves. The hiring company can send a detailed questionnaire relating to the specifics of a position and have the applicant record the responses on their own time, thereby eliminating issues of time differences and scheduling difficulties for live interviews. The hiring company can then easily review these candidate submissions and decide which to invite for the next step. When a company has 30 candidates considered for a position, the time demands on an HR manager could run 30-45 minutes for each live phone-video interview. With recorded candidate submissions the company can reduce that time to 10-15 minutes each and avoid scheduling issues.

SHRM Online: What kinds of recruiting practices are best used for non-U.S. candidates?

Zwerdling: Every company’s recruiting manager is focused on quickly, efficiently and economically finding qualified candidates. There are so many different common methods used by companies to find qualified applicants and include posting on the company’s careers page, using in-house recruiters, posting on public job boards, using social media and engaging outside recruiting firms. And while it can be somewhat easy to find domestic, English-speaking candidates using these sources, when a U.S. company needs international or U.S.-based foreign candidates, engaging a recruiting firm with expertise in multilingual international staffing is much more effective. These specialized firms have deep knowledge of languages, cultures, communication, technology, visa and immigration issues, and global networks to quickly identify and contact potential candidates around the world. And these international recruiting firms can advise companies on how to adapt job descriptions to better attract the desired international audience.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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