Mind the (cultural) ‘gap’

For the longest time, Western institutions spearheaded international cooperation, and recruitment procedures were somewhat streamlined. But as aid groups ramp up local hiring, development has become increasingly homegrown — and applying for a job requires taking into account the beauty of cultural diversity.

Wherever the job, my general advice remains the same: Prepare well. That means researching well in advance what will be expected of you culturally. Although the Internet is a great resource, it’s often best to get the inside scoop from a contact within the organization you’re applying for, or at least within the country it is based.

Here are some things to consider:

1. Labor law

Your work authorization (or lack thereof) will clearly have an impact on your ability to take a job. But age, gender, nationality and even ethnicity can also make a difference. In countries like South Africa, for instance, labor laws may encourage employers to hire people of a certain race or nationality — so be prepared to pull out all the stops to prove you’re the right candidate for the job.

2. Privacy norms

In some countries, it’s frowned upon or even illegal to ask for a job applicant’s age, marital status or photo, while in other countries, that’s commonplace. Same with a candidate’s race or family background.

For instance, “Chinese organizations like to ask these questions as they believe these factors would affect one’s performance at work,” said Rob Liu, senior consultant with 3HR, a London-based recruitment and employee benefits consultancy. “Candidates, therefore, should be warned in advance not to be offended too easily if they encounter such embarrassment!”

3. CV format

Find out what kind of a resume your potential future employer prefers. If this is not stated in the job description, call or email to get it right. Devex has written extensively about how to write a CV, including here:

>> Resume formats for international development professionals

4. Supporting documents

Recruiters may expect a host of documents to be submitted with a standard application — or, sometimes, with candidates that have been shortlisted. Take Bolivia.

“The recruitment process in Bolivia is quite formal,” said Noah Marwil, Latin America director of Pencils of Promise, an educational nongovernmental organization. “To start, the paperwork one submits when applying for a position goes way beyond what we are used to in the Western world. In addition to the usual CV and cover letter, an application typically contains three typed and signed letters of reference, secondary school, university and vocational program diplomas, copies of driver’s licenses, passports and personal identification cards and sometimes even a photo or two.”

Robin Smith, an independent NGO management consultant who has worked across Central America and blogs at ConsultingConnections.com, said this: “In Guatemala, a candidate for an NGO role does not simply submit a CV. They provide the potential employer with a sort of career folder that includes certified copies of all education, training and career documentation. It also includes signed references, identification and anything else they deem relevant. It is very bureaucratic and formal, with paperwork being highly valued.”

Before you embark on an international job search, you may want to get all your paperwork in order. Have a copy of signed identification, transcripts, portrait photographs and, if you can, references ready in case you need them.

5. Attire

How should you dress professionally and culturally appropriate for an in-person or video interview? Check out this article by Devex to get a better idea:

>> How to dress for an international development job interview

6. Interview style

Interview styles differ from person to person, but there are a few cultural peculiarities you may want to be aware of.

Chris MacLean, who has worked for the United Nations in Bangkok, gives an example: “If I was in Asia in an interview and the person was older, I would be conscious of the fact that I should show respect, whereas in North America, for example, there’s more of an expectation to treat each other as equals.”

Be prepared to adjust your attitude on the fly depending on the person meeting you, whether that involves (seeking or avoiding) eye contact or (asking or avoiding) questions about the employer or the recruiter’s personal story. Check out what Devex readers had to say on the matter through their comments in my last Devex Career Matters blog post:

>> Finish strong: How to end a job interview on a positive note

At the end of the day, regardless of how well you have prepared, you must remain flexible. As Lykke Andersen, founder of the Institute of Advanced Development Studies in La Paz, Bolivia, told me: “In my experience, the differences between individual interviewers are so much larger than differences between countries and cultures.”

But that’s fine too, since all that preparation — at a minimum — may help you relax during the interview and adapt to the person sitting in front of you.

For more tips on how to ace an international development job interview, check out:

Read last week’s Career Matters.

About the author

  • Ioulia Fenton

    Ioulia Fenton advises job seekers on resume writing as part of the Devex CV Writing Service. She also blogs about international development career matters. Ioulia has worked as a headhunter in London and now serves as assistant editor of the Global South Development Magazine. She has worked with the Institute of Advanced Development Studies in La Paz, Bolivia, interned with UNESCAP in Bangkok, Thailand, and is currently based in Guatemala.