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Funny interviews in a foreign land

Japanese want to know if you're a drinker. In Mexico, you're better off married. Some of the more unusual questions you're likely to encounter when interviewing outside the U.S.
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When Keiko Shinahara interviewed for a senior account-management position at a Tokyo-based import-export company earlier this year, the hiring executive immediately launched into a series of highly personal inquiries: Where did she grow up? What did her parents do for a living? Judging by her appearance and guessing she was about 30 years old, he asked whether she had plans to get married and have kids. Shinahara answered each question politely and honestly. As the session concluded, the executive added one final question: Was she a drinker? Without hesitation, Shinahara said yes — even though in truth, she considers herself conservative regarding alcohol. She got the job.

“Japanese managers want to know whether you’ll be fun on an office night out,” explains Will Jasprizza, a lawyer-turned-cultural-consultant who’s lived in Japan for more than a decade. “Part of the office life is going out for drinks and karaoke, so saying no makes you sound like you won’t fit in.”

The questions Shinahara faced were par for the course in Japan, where anything-goes employment regulations foster hiring practices that Americans might consider off-limits — or outright unusual. “You’ll be asked about your age, your family, your hobbies, and it’s quite common that you’ll be asked to give your blood type,” says Jasprizza, because of the belief in Japan that each type produces a different kind of personality. For example, people with Type A blood are seen as well-organized, earnest, and perfectionist, while those with Type O are thought to make good leaders.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as hiring idiosyncrasies in foreign cultures are concerned. In Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and especially France, graphology, or handwriting analysis, is considered a critical final step in screening senior hires. More than half of French companies subject the penmanship of executive candidates to professional graphologists for review before offering a contract. Supporters say that the graphology analysis acts like a “scanner” for hidden personality concerns, such as excessive rigidity or emotional instability.

In the U.K., “panel interviews” are common, placing candidates in front of a group of senior executives for rapid-fire questioning. “Companies in the U.K. believe that panel interviews prevent favoritism and keep the hiring process impartial,” says Leslie Lee, who faced multiple panels during her interviews for a senior editorial position at the Financial Times Group.

Basic cultural differences in the recruitment process like these can make applying for a job in an overseas market a challenge, but that’s not stemming the tide of American professionals seeking jobs abroad. Bilal Ojjeh, C.E.O. of, has seen applications for overseas management positions grow at a rate of 60 percent per year since 2004; nearly 20 percent of graduates from the University of Chicago’s top-ranked M.B.A. program took jobs outside of North America this year — a new high.

“You’re seeing more and more Americans saying ‘The world is getting smaller. I need to pull up roots to improve my appeal,’?” says Melanie Kusin, a vice chair of Heidrick & Struggles, who specializes in board and succession work for multinational companies. “If you’re not at a company where you can get that kind of practical capital, it’s still something you can’t afford to miss anymore — you have to consider doing it by yourself.”

Unfortunately, U.S. workers looking to gain this type of experience have little choice but to abide by the rules of the market that they’re looking to break into. “Some things that are simply illegal here are very accepted abroad — the stuff we get asked about by our global clients is way beyond what we’re asked to do in the U.S.,” acknowledges Kusin. “But if it’s standard in the culture over there, how can you oppose it?” (For tips on what to expect when you’re interviewing for jobs abroad, see our story.)

In Japan, which just passed its first comprehensive antidiscrimination law in 1985, a Tokyo district court recently ruled that companies were not prohibited from applying “different hiring, job assignment, or promotion rules” for individuals of different genders, ages, or backgrounds. And though China this year enacted an equal-opportunity law banning discrimination based on nationality, race, gender, or religious belief, critics note that the law carries no penalties, which means that it will probably be ignored. By contrast, in the U.S., discrimination in hiring based on gender, age, marital status, race, and the like are all against the law and these rules are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Victor Kuo, who spent years in Shanghai as a senior executive in consulting and venture capital and as general manager for Wal-Mart’s joint venture there, can attest to China’s absence of safeguards against bias. “As a hiring manager, I was allowed, even encouraged, to ask candidates about things like health status,” he says. “The surprising thing is that American companies in Asia still ask these questions even when they know that they have to abide by U.S. practices. I’ve had the managing director of a global head-hunting firm in China say, ‘I know I’m not supposed to ask you this — but how old are you?’?”

Double standards like these can be seen closer to home as well. In Mexico, even subsidiaries of U.S.-based companies commonly screen hires by age, gender, and marital status. OCC Mundial, one of Mexico’s leading online recruitment sites, regularly lists ads like this one for a position at a major American petroleum company: “Position: Sales manager. Education: Business administration or marketing. Sex: Male. Age: 30-45. Civil status: Preferably married?.?.?.? Don’t apply if you don’t meet this profile 100%.”

Western Europe’s robust worker protections prohibit screening based on race, gender, age, or belief, but because those same protections make firing employees extremely difficult, companies are motivated to use any means possible, however esoteric or subtle, to vet the backgrounds and attitudes of candidates before extending an offer. All of which guarantees that the interviewing process will be a gauntlet — but for most international hires, the trouble is worth it. “As a rule, when we survey people who work overseas, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive,” says Rebecca Powers, a principal consultant for global H.R. consulting firm Mercer.

“The cultural and career implications are so substantial, and compared to the U.S., the job security in many places is incredible,” Powers adds. “Once you’re hired in a market like France, nothing can dislodge you; if I could be reincarnated as anything, I’d want to be a high-paid French executive with a full employment contract.”