Challenges in a German-French job interview

Let’s take a look at the human resources department of a traditional German company that attaches great importance to good dealings with its personnel at all levels and lives up to this. One sunny morning, a young French engineer, graduate of a so-called French “elite university”, two representatives of the technical department and the HR person in charge of recruitment for “high pots”, meet for an interview.

French arrogance?

After a short hesitation, he answers rather vaguely. The department representatives ask if he would like there to be some kind of change after this time. The candidate somehow doesn’t seem to understand what might be meant. The next round of questions is to ask whether he might consider leading a project group in the future. At this point, it becomes difficult for him to restrain himself and he diplomatically indicates that it should be obvious that, with his career and training, he would actually immediately be entitled to a leadership function.

While being escorted out, the candidate gets very upset about the narrow-mindedness of the interviewers: their questions seemed extremely petty to him. He was very surprised by the expectations they probably have of a graduate of such an elite school. In the meeting room, on the other hand, the technical representatives are deeply outraged by the arrogance of this young man: such arrogance, typically French!

Cross-cultural differences in the educational system

Such a result can be very distressing if you can empathize with the different ways of thinking! But what actually happened? In order to be able to explain this in more detail, let us briefly compare the German and French education systems:

This has more far-reaching effects than are apparent at first glance. Both educational systems are basically the starting point for very different personality imprints and later for very different profiles! This becomes clear in the comparison of what both education systems promote:

What turns an engineer into an executive?

Our young French engineer did indeed consider himself, as a recent graduate of a so-called elite university for engineers, to already be an executive at the time of the interview. This attitude had been impressed on him throughout his training. And therein lay the misunderstanding! The self-perception of the applicant’s own profile differed fundamentally from the way the technical representatives perceived others.

As for the German department representatives, they were simply not prepared for such a situation. For them, someone who knows their job well is a good engineer; that is, someone who shines above all with their expertise, and who can carry out solid project management on the basis of data and facts. There is less demand for a high level of self-confidence, the ability to cope with stress, resistance to pressure, quick comprehension, flexibility (the legendary French “esprit de synthèse”) and the ability to develop ideas, at least to the extent that is often the case with French profiles of this kind, at least when entering the profession. These characteristics are almost dubious to Germans and are met with a certain skepticism.

French careers

This overlooks the fact that an admission to a so-called “elite university” in France is preceded by an extremely demanding preparatory course of two years (“classes péparatoires”, or “prépa” for short). During this time, from Monday at 8 a.m. to Friday at about 5 p.m., students study and cram. It goes without saying that studying will continue in the evening and at the weekend. After all, there are exams on the week’s material every Friday. As for vacations or other periods of rest, they are almost unthinkable. The aim is to pass the entrance examination (“Concours”) to one of these coveted schools with the highest possible ranking. The number of places is limited, and success is not guaranteed. This way costs time and money but earning money on the side is extremely difficult. This is why it is not surprising that the young Frenchman is so self-confident. On top of this, French university graduates often appear very young to German department representatives. In fact, they are on average a few years younger than their German competitors.

These misunderstandings of perception become even more pronounced if a young woman is a candidate for the job. As it is, not many young women study engineering and they are even less likely than their male counterparts to be entrusted with leading a project team, a task for which they have received exemplary training.

Bridging cultural differences

In this case, it was unfortunate that the French candidate was not selected, even though he, from the point of view of the HR Department would have been the right candidate for the position in question. However, the mutual irritation escalated to such an extent in the course of the interview that HR could not see any possibility of recruiting this candidate against the firm opinion of the department representatives. With his profile, he would have brought with him a number of qualities that are less represented in German companies and all parties would have complemented each other well in their diversity and different profiles.

In times of globalization it is hugely important for companies to have a balanced combination of different cultures represented in their own company.

Dr. Françoise Dorison

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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