Recruiting Personnel in the United States

(Excerpt from a speech given as part of a workshop sponsored by the Bochum Chamber of Commerce)

How far can you get employing the German rules of the game?

The simple answer is: not very far.

But that would be too easy! The subject is as complex as the country itself, as you have learned today from several of the other speakers.

The Labor Market USA

Can one speak in such general terms?
Imagine for a moment, you are in the United States and someone asks you to explain the European labor market and the recruitment process there. You would be faced with a big dilemma. Where to start? In Portugal, Greece, France, Sweden or soon Poland?

Dealing with today’s subject, are we faced with the same problem?

Thankfully not, although it is quite necessary to make a distinction of candidates from different parts of the country in the search and selection process of top executives.


Question No. 1: Where in the USA?

In Florida, Michigan, California or Texas? That can make a huge difference when confronted with a headhunting mission. The most vivid differences become apparent when looking at data such as salary and cost of living expenses.

Let us start with an example: a Sales Manager in Boca Raton, FL, might have a median annual income of $74,184, whereas in New York City he would earn $104,423 for the same job and in San Jose, CA $112,160.

One can be really in for a surprise, when the task is to recruit a top candidate for a company located in the Bay Area of San Francisco and the subject of housing rears its ugly head. Moving expenses, the sale of the current home of the candidate at his current location and the purchase of a new residence can become prohibitively expensive and $100,000 accumulate quickly.

You’ll notice by this example that you must also pay attention to regional differences in the United States in the recruitment process, even though certain rules in the identification and recruiting of top executives remain the same and those are the ones we want to address here.

If you are interested in learning more about cost-of-living expenses in the USA, you may find comprehensive information on the Internet at or (= the salary calculator).

Question No. 2: How to introduce and "sell" the US subsidiary of a German parent company as an organization that provides excellent job and career opportunities?

How can we make a small firm with a staff of 3, 5, or 45 people attractive to the candidates in our target group?

We can’t assume that a respectable German mid-sized company, which might be already in its 3rd generation, will be viewed as extremely attractive in the United States. Even leading big corporations with an excellent reputation in Germany can face big recruitment problems in the US. Most often this is due to the lack of knowledge of Americans about everything that happens outside of their own country.

The simple answer is to develop trust with qualified candidates after initial contact is established.

It has been proven to be very successful to invite the final two candidates on the short list to Germany, to present the company, to introduce top management and to all have dinner together, etc.

All of this should be scheduled for a Friday and/or Saturday as to give the candidates a chance to use part of the weekend to return home. Please remember that most people in the US only have 2 or 3 weeks of vacation time.

Question No. 3: What exactly is your target group?

Already during the preliminary stage one should decide if it is absolutely necessary to focus on a young hotshot, who you realistically won’t be able to retain for more than 2 to 3 years. It definitely could make sense to choose a "seasoned" manager who already has lived out his high-flying dreams and is now doing a solid and dependable job.

Cross-Cultural Differences: When recruiting executives in Germany and the USA, what are the main differences?

What do we expect in Germany?

A cover letter of the applicant, that precisely addresses the technical and personal requirements of the position in question.
A comprehensive curriculum vitae (CV), complete with the applicant’s place and date of birth, education and/or college/university degrees and an exact description of the employment history including dates.
A photo of the candidate, which should be recent.
Copies of letters of recommendation, that give the recruiter insight into the evaluation of the candidate's achievements and his behavior and at the same time serve as verification of the information given in the CV.
Current salary information, income expectation and notice period.
During the face-to-face interview, any remaining personal questions can be asked such as marital status, number of kids, hobbies and affiliations.

How far will you get in the United States with these expectations?
With this European cultural mindset, you and possibly your HR manager travel to the United States to have the final say as to who will be hired for a VP Sales & Marketing, a Plant Manager and/or a CFO. I would like to accompany you on this fictitious trip and prepare you for idiosyncrasies and differences by using practical examples.

In the United States as well as in Germany it is always our objective to procure the most suitable candidates. But the path to accomplishing this goal might be somewhat different and, for those who are not familiar with the rules of the game, there are surprises and pitfalls waiting to happen.

Let’s take the next step and assume that there are resumes and CVs of potential candidates at hand. Be aware that in the United States executive search is a much more commonly used search strategy than in Germany and that candidates are more ready and willing to submit their resumes to recruiters, most often by email.

Therefore, let’s look at the details:
A resume is the American version of the curriculum vitae. It reads as easily as the product description of a high tech appliance. It starts with a summary describing the applicant as very special and unique and highlighting many strong points. Quite frequently a lot of room is given to such accomplishments as growing revenue or market share, reducing cost, optimizing the degree of automation or restructuring a business unit or entire organization to increase the bottom line.

This is followed by a listing of the candidate’s education such as degrees from Ivy-League schools, that are mentioned with pride, including grade point averages (for instance 4.0 GPA), but without dates.

What is omitted in resumes and which questions are you not allowed to ask?
To be brief, absolute taboos are:
• Requesting a photo.
• Asking for the date of birth/age.
• Inquiring about marital status or family planning or children.
• Asking about the candidate’s race.
• Requesting information about the religious affiliation.
• Asking about possible club memberships.
• DInquiring about the sexual orientation.

In a nutshell: Don’t ask personal questions; only those that pertain to the job description of the position at hand are allowed.

As you can clearly see: hiring and firing is not what it used to be and, at least during the application process, the US candidate appears to be more protected than the German counterpart.

Therefore, these subjects must be avoided. If a candidate finds you negligent you may find yourself in court being sued.

In Europe we have moved closer to the practices found in the United States. For Germany, in particular, the enactment of “Das Allgemeine Gleichbehandlungsgesetz (AGG)” (a general equal opportunity law) in August 2006 has lead to a significant change in the legal situation for dealing with applicants.

Back to the Resume
What are the exact dates a candidate worked at a certain company?
The German craving for accuracy needs to be curtailed. Oftentimes you will only find years mentioned, not months and years. Further impediments are that there are no mandatory work reference letters from companies in the United States. In general the listing starts with the current position and goes backward. How far backward, that is up to the applicant. The candidate considers the offered position and determines accordingly which information is relevant. He wants to keep the resume short, clear and condensed. The unwritten rule is: don’t exceed 2 pages. It is quite possible that a candidate considers it quite unimportant what he did 20 years ago. Moreover, he might not be eager to show that he is already past 50. Although the resume might not be as comprehensive as one might expect, you must come to a decision regarding which candidates you want to invite to a face-to-face interview.

The resumes must be analyzed critically regarding content and wording. Even in the United States, the job market is not only populated by winners and top performers, glossy self-descriptions are part of the game, one must keep this fact in mind.

Therefore, the subsequent phone interview becomes the most important tool to evaluate candidates and to gather information. The experienced telephone interviewer (my biased opinion: women are better at this) is able to listen between the lines and therefore able to draw forth information that could not be found in the written resume. In addition, the sheer size of the country makes it impossible to fly promising candidates anywhere to personal interviews. Expenses are prohibitive and candidates don’t have enough vacation days to routinely travel to face-to-face interviews. Therefore, if a candidate is invited to a personal interview, it must make sense for both parties.

The personal interview - a contest?!

During the face-to-face interview the candidate applies all his skills: you can count on meeting a very self-assured, charismatic individual with a positive attitude, who will try his utmost to establish a comfortable atmosphere for the first meeting He radiates an aura of professionalism; he knows what he is talking about and fully understands the job requirements. He is eager to convey the impression that he is the No. 1 choice for solving problems and realizing ambitious goals. As gathered from the resume the candidate indeed has excellent presentation skills. Compared to most German applicants he is much more adept at putting his best foot forward.

Another remarkable difference is that every candidate views this interviewing process as a competition he is eager to win. The goal is to end up on the short list of the 3 most suitable candidates. However, all this effort does not necessarily mean that he will actually accept the job in the end.

In any case, following the interview, the candidate will send a "Thank You Letter" and will assure you, the recruiter, how very pleasant and interesting the meeting had been for him and that he views the offered position as quite a challenge and that he is able to meet all the requirements.

You are faced with a dazzling resume and a dazzling candidate. What are you to do – hire the most affable or the one that speaks some German? Of course not!

The Power of Chemistry also plays a significant role in the United States, that is to say, whether the candidate will fit into the corporate culture of the US subsidiary of a German company and if you, his superior, will be able to work with him successfully.

In your role as the interviewer you must remain critical and objective with regard to the resume and the candidate. Try to keep to the facts, don’t dismiss a candidate solely on the grounds of his resume but don’t get excited too quickly either. Remember that the candidate might have other values and that Americans in general may be a little different. But that doesn’t exclude him from becoming a valued member of your team. A good portion of people skills is required of you and don’t be afraid to listen to your gut feeling.

Emotional Intelligence

In the field of recruiting in the United States Emotional Intelligence is quickly gaining in importance, a subject we have been giving increased attention to for many years. Today the exploration of personality traits is as significant as the professional qualification of a given candidate and is known in Germany also by the name of Emotional Intelligence.

Answers to certain questions are supposed to aid in predicting whether a candidate will fit into the corporate culture of your company.

Key subjects are:

Self-awareness (= the ability to observe oneself critically, to recognize one’s own feelings, to develop a vocabulary of feelings, and to understand the connection between thoughts, feelings and reactions)
Managing emotions (= Introspection as to how one reacts to bad news such as nonverbal hurtful remarks, what is hidden behind a certain feeling? (i.e. the wounded feelings behind the anger;) ability to find ways to cope with apprehension and fears, anger and sadness)
Empathy (= the capacity to understand and identify with feelings and concerns of others and to accept divergent opinions)
Skill in handling realtionships
Personal reflection

All these are perfect topics for psychologists. What other questions might help to dispel doubts?

In the following you’ll find a small sample of questions:
How do you compensate for your weaknesses and vulnerabilities?
What are the biggest mistakes you've made on the job and how have you learned from them?
How do you connect with your people?
Can you explain the key capabilities /strengths and weaknesses of your team members and what you coach them on?
What have you done to increase diversity on your team?

Your interview style says a lot about you

Let us explain by employing a practical example: a German company in the process control instrumentation field is seeking a VP Sales & Marketing for its US subsidiary.

In the client’s view the candidate must be a highly proficient engineer, physicist or chemist, with a broad technical knowledge of the products he will be involved in, who is intimately familiar with the market and its competitors, and who has at least 10 years of proven experience in this particular industry. It follows that the search is on for a high degree of technological competence.

During the personal interview the candidate is then peppered with questions about his technical knowledge and even the smallest technical details. This is a totally new experience for him. He has never been questioned like this and to this extent, not even back in school.

Let us now examine the expectations the VP Sales & Marketing brings to the table:
He might currently live in Chicago or Los Angeles and considers his main strengths to be the ability to establish and maintain new leads and contacts, make convincing presentations, listen carefully to his customers, and to convey to potential customers that he will do his utmost to solve any and all requirements they might have, in short that he will be there for the customer at all times.

In his role as a manager he will choose and lead his sales reps or those of the distributors in the same fashion. We have shown by this example that here two worlds collide.

The interview style of the German "boss" may also shed some light on his management style. US managers frequently complain about micromanagement based on underlying mistrust. Daily calls, a reporting style that is supposed to capture every single detail of the day-to-day business are only a few of the stumbling blocks that may jeopardize a lasting success during his tenure.

Many US managers of German companies view themselves as employees in the morning and entrepreneurs in the afternoon.

How can we obtain even greater certainty in evaluating our short-list candidates during the final decision process?

One aid is Reference Checks.

These checks can only be conducted with the expressed consent of the candidates. The same is true for verifying college and/or university degrees. These services are handled most efficiently by professional reference check companies. Our procedure is as follows: we ask the 3 remaining short-listed candidates to name 3 references each, preferably 2 from former or current superiors and 1 from a peer. When contacting these people, the recruiter must introduce himself by name, address and phone number and must give the contact the opportunity to call back.

Before we start asking for information, we must be clear about what we really like to know. When asking questions one must be very sensitive and the answers must be carefully scrutinized; one must be able to read between the lines to ascertain if the evaluation is positive, average or even negative. If one can’t get a real grip on the information being provided, a last resort is the question: if you would have the opportunity, would you hire this candidate again?

During Contract Negotiations

You will realize quickly that variable income as part of the compensation package plays a much bigger role in the United States than in Germany. Items like 401K plan, health & dental insurance, stock options, moving & housing expenses, company cars or car allowances are major negotiating points. Notice periods of 3 or even 6 months are unheard of. In most cases there are no written contracts at all and if there are any they are very detailed and term limited.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do
If you are on your way to the United States to hire top executives you should know that your US subsidiary is not a German but an American company and that you must act locally.

This will make great demands on your sensibility, your intuition, your sophistication and negotiation talents, and your people skills. (The candidate will want to take this opportunity to demonstrate his own negotiating skills!) If you do not have extensive prior experience as a recruiter in the USA, then you should take advantage of professional support.

How to select the right Headhunter?
Many company owners, top executives and decision makers have reported to me, that at one point they spoke to their German recruitment consultant about recruiting personnel in the USA. The German executive-search consultant was able to recommend a US partner agency that was known to have done good work in the past, albeit without particular experience working for German companies.

This is often a sure-fire way to head for disaster!

The German consultant writes a job description, translates it – as well as he can – into English, sends it on to his US partner who reads it with his American eyes, draws up a proposal, receives the assignment and proceeds to seek a US manager who is able to meet the job requirements and can fulfill the tasks.

Cultural differences fall by the wayside.

The contacted candidates naturally assume that goals and objectives are going to be agreed upon, that they will have a budget at their disposal, that they will report monthly and that otherwise they can run the company as they see fit. You won’t be too surprised to learn that this may oftentimes not work out, particularly when the organization is the US subsidiary of a mid-sized German parent company. We don’t even want to start talking about the language barrier.

Therefore, it is imperative for you to assure that your headhunter not only understands how a German company owner or top executive acts and thinks but also how his American counterpart acts and thinks and that he will be able to build a bridge between the two worlds. He must be willing and able to ask for understanding on both sides for the different points of view. In a large organization this may not be of such importance, but, according to my experience, in the small business environment this is of utmost importance.

Therefore, require references also from your headhuntern and speak to other small businesses about their experience.

Although we have mentioned quite a variety of differences, it is good and comforting to know, that the American way of doing business can be described as follows: The rules may be different, but success is the name of the game. Und das ist es doch, was uns fasziniert und was wir als Deutsche in USA suchen.