If you run from the elephants in the room, they might still get you.
Are you aware of the difference between an interview with a potential boss and an interview with HR?
They each have very different agendas:
A boss or supervisor-to-be is interested primarily in your professional competence while human relationship issues are less important to them. All they need in this regard is to feel there is reasonably good chemistry with you, and that neither your personality nor your behavior set off any flashing red lights in their mind.
HR, on the other hand, has a totally different perspective. If you prove professionally incompetent, no one will fault them since that isn't their call. If however you prove to have been a bad recruiting choice because you are difficult to work with, that would reflect negatively on them. Since professional competence is easier to gauge than personality, HR people go into CYA mode. From their point of view, better to play it safe and nix anyone who raises even the slightest doubt in their minds. The fact that they are causing some department inconvenience is less important to them than covering their rear ends.
So how do you become the safe choice?
Generally, people are predisposed to prefer people like them. When your main consideration is not to make a mistake, this factor becomes even more important.
For example, here in Israel, companies that attract skilled new immigrants (such as in hi-tech) tend to have HR people who are relatively young, secular Ashkenazi women. As such, they give preference to candidates who are like them, who fit into their crowd; for them, the most risk-averse candidate is someone relatively young (late 20s to late 30s) secular, Ashkenazi, who was either born in Israel or at least finished high school and served in the army. That’s their comfort zone candidate.
However, most immigrants do not fit that mold. So when they interview with HR, there are two elephants likely to be in room. One is called age (for anyone over 45-50), and the other- a potential perception of cultural disconnect.
Most interviewees tend to ignore those elephants, and act as if they’re not there.
That's a mistake, because it’s very easy for an HR person to decide that anyone so insensitive to atmosphere (that they ignore the elephants in the room) would generally be an insensitive person who will not be easy to work with and therefore not a good hire.
This is neither fair nor smart decision making, but it is the way of the world, or at least, the way that this part of it works.
I believe that preemption is a better tactic than passivity. If you recognize the elephants in the room, address them directly, albeit in a humorous way that defuses tension and shows you are not an insensitive boor.
Here are some examples of how to do it:
1) If you feel your age might be a knock against you, say something like “I know I’m not in my thirties, but I feel this is an advantage, as I’m past full-time motherhood, and have not yet become a full time savta (grandmother), which means zero distractions and much less need to take time off, and much more flexibility to work late when needed.”
This way, you’ve addressed the problem, cracked a pleasant joke and shown you’re well-integrated enough to know what makes this country tick. Unless the HR person interviewing you has really bad issues with her mother or grandmother, your initiative as turned a lemon into lemonade.
2) If you feel cultural disconnect, say something like “I know I still have a heavy Anglo accent, but heck, so did [former Prime Minister] Golda Meir. My Hebrew is good enough, and I’ve been here long enough to get Shahar Hasson skits.” Again a bit of humor breaks the ice, makes you feel like “one of us” and someone “zorem” (who goes with the flow, a very important trait in Israel).
Bottom line, rehearse a few good lines at home, and if you see those elephants, use your prepared lines to address and defuse any issues. Humor is a prized commodity, everyone likes someone who made them chuckle. It breaks the ice, makes them feel good about you, and you want HR to feel good about you. Not your skills, not your competence, but you.
Jonathan Ariel is a strategic consultant and entrepreneur. Until 2006, he worked as a journalist, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Maariv International.
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