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Recruiting across Europe: cultural differences and the influence in the application process

Cultural differences have a very important role in international recruitment. In order to ensure that the candidate experience and the onboarding of the candidate is optimal, it is useful to get acquainted with the cultural differences, rituals and customs between the different countries. Knowing these differences makes recruitment more powerful and increases the chance of success when you, as a recruiter, are able to respond to them.

What can you expect from a candidate from Slovenia and what should you absolutely not do with Norwegians?

Recruiting in Europe is not as easy as it sounds. Europe consists of 51 countries (apart from the regions that have their own language and identity), each with a different history and culture. Of these, 28 countries, including the United Kingdom without Brexit, belong to the European Union, where residents can travel and work freely. The cultural and labor market differences between these 28 countries are enormous, such as between the neighboring countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania or Belgium and the Netherlands. Not only when it comes to the job boards they use (almost every European country has its own market leader as a job board), but also when it comes to expectations in the job interview or the duration of the application process. For example, Belgians consider it important to meet the team/line manager during the interview, while the Dutch consider it more important to have equal contact with the person conducting the interview. If you use the same approach for all candidates in all countries, it is difficult to achieve the maximum result in each country. After all, the candidates expect something different.

While the goal of recruitment is largely the same, you do observe differences in candidates from different countries. For example, I’ve noticed that work/life balance has been a higher priority for candidates in the Netherlands, whereas making career steps or receiving salary increases has been more of a driver for candidates from the United States,” tells Monika Stear, working within Talent Acquisition Europe Signify. “As a Recruiter it only adds to your development, as you’ll learn new skills from working with different nationalities and managing them and their expectations within the context of your market or business.”

If you adapt your approach to the regional and cultural differences of the candidate in question, it is much easier to match and bring in the candidate. How do you make a connection that fits the values and ambitions of the international talent you are looking for? Where are the differences and how can you overcome them?

Power distance between countries

Within Europe, there are many different cultures that result in candidates having different norms and values. For example, there is a greater power distance (according to the cultural dimensions of Hofstede) between employer and employee in southern and eastern European countries, which means that there is more hierarchy in an organization. Employees find it important to be addressed with the right title, there is often a dress code, more formality and employees rely on the decision of the boss. At a lower power distance, as in the Netherlands and Sweden, there is an informal atmosphere on the shop floor and it is more normal to use first names after a first meeting.

"The cultural differences between candidates also influence what information they give during the job interview. In Scandinavia, applicants even put the name of their pet or children on their CV, where candidates in Germany are much more formal and send a whole bundle of information," says Jolie den Boer, APV recruitment Continental Europe & Africa at Cognizant. "In countries with more hierarchy, such as Germany or Eastern Europe, applicants are unlikely to say no or give their opinion, where the Dutch are much more open. As a recruiter, you take into account who is in front of you and if you know that candidates are more reserved, you will have to ask more questions in order to get to a certain answer. This of course differs per job title, so an IT worker will always be less talkative than, for example, a sales consultant."

The degree of power distance is also expressed when, as a manager, you ask an employee to carry out an assignment. In countries with a high power distance, such as Slovenia or the Czech Republic or Slovakia, over 63% will carry out this assignment without asking any questions. In Northern and Western European countries where there is more equality in the workplace, employees will ask questions. For example, less than 30% of the employees from Estonia and the Netherlands will carry out the assignment without asking questions, according to the international study The Gobal Talent Acquisition Monitor.

[Figure Theorem 11: assignment from boss]

So if you hire a foreign candidate, you have to take these cultural differences into account. A candidate from the Netherlands will expect more equality during an interview and will also give his own opinion and feedback during the interview. In countries where the power distance is greater, it is much less common for a candidate to counteract. When such a candidate sits at the table with a Dutch recruiter, this may seem less assertive or even passive. While this can be explained by the culture. A Dutchman who applies for a job in Spain, for example, can be seen as very direct or even disrespectful, because this distance of power is not common for Dutch people. As a recruiter you have to be prepared for this, but you also have to prepare the hiring manager. As well as the candidate, who you can prepare (candidate preparation) about cultural differences. How is a Dutchman perceived in the eyes of a Spaniard and vice versa? All this, of course, from the perspective of the company culture for which recruitment takes place.

A number of differences to take into account:

Particularly in southern European countries, such as Italy and Portugal, almost half of the people consider the loyalty of their colleagues more important than their personal goals. Confrontations between colleagues are avoided and the interests of the group or personal relationships take precedence over the tasks of the work. Relationships and the group go for personal gain. This is in contrast to northern European countries where the personal goals and wishes are much more central, instead of the wishes of the group. In Norway, only 22% consider loyalty between colleagues more important and in Lithuania this is 16%. In these countries it is more about the individual. If, as a recruiter, you are looking more for a competitive attitude or workforce, you are more likely to find it in countries such as Italy and Portugal. In southern Europe, on the other hand, it's more about the collective.

In some countries you can appeal to candidates by emphasizing pleasure and relaxation in addition to the work tasks, in other countries you are wrong with that. For example, employees in many Western European countries (Austria or Germany) find it important to have relaxation in addition to work. The work/life balance. In Romania, Greece and Croatia, on the other hand, this is much less accepted and doing your work well is in first place. In these countries, the work/life balance is more oriented towards work, while in Western Europe this is more live.

[Figure Theorem 10: Fun/work]

Employees from Slovakia, Germany and Croatia see their colleagues more as competitors than teammates. They are much more performance-oriented and challenging and ambition is paramount in these countries: more than 35% see their colleagues as competitors. While in Northern European countries colleagues see each other as equals, make compromises faster and negotiate with each other. In Estonia, Norway or Lithuania, less than 9% of employees see their colleagues as competitors.

Workers from southern Europe or eastern Europe are more in need of clear instructions about their work tasks and do not like insecure and unfamiliar situations. This may clash with the culture that exists in companies from Northern and Western Europe. Here there is more tolerance for unclear situations and there should be no more regulation than is strictly necessary. For example, 92% of workers in Slovenia, Portugal, Romania and Greece consider it important to have clear instructions. While in the Netherlands, only 68% of workers think this is important.

However, modern leadership and a progressive HRM team are required. When hiring an international candidate, cultural differences play a role. By gaining more in-depth knowledge as a recruiter, you will be able to better manage your expectations during the interview. According to Rob van Elburg, Headhunter at Van Elburg Notté Global Executive Tech Search, organizations can still take big steps to respond better to these cultural differences: "As a tech recruiter, who has been recruiting internationally for 15 years, cultural differences no longer have an impact on me. This will also apply to organizations in the Netherlands that have been working with various nationalities for a long time. These "millennial expats", who already live in the Netherlands, are increasingly applying to organizations in the Netherlands that do not yet have this experience with highly educated knowledge migrants. This is despite the fact that they desperately need these workers, for example in order to realize a digital transformation. Modern leadership and a progressive HRM team are required. Precisely in order to quickly bridge any cultural differences." In short, in order to make international recruitment a success, cultural differences must be taken into account. Knowing your candidate makes your recruitment more powerful and increases the chance of a successful hiring.

Looking for greater insight into labour-market data?

Interested in smarter international recruitment using the European Recruitment Dashboard? This dashboard gives you access to data from 28 countries in Europe, concerning 750 professional groups. It will empower you to develop and fine-tune your recruitment strategy in the European labour market. The data we use comes from our very own European job-market study: The Global Talent Acquisition Monitor (GTAM) and from Jobfeed by Textkernel. If you are interested in more information about this dashboard, please contact us to request a demo. 

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