You should avoid these five cultural pitfalls during the job interview with a German company - here is how

By Jörg Kleis

Warning! The following events actually occurred

… or they keep occurring. What sounds more dramatic than it is, is nothing more but us sharing our experience as recruiters. Because what we know about German employers and jobs in Germany is key to our coachees. That being said, we do not mean to perpetuate any stereotypes, or offend or discriminate against anyone. The issue is far too serious for that. And yet, it is sometimes funny.

Obviously, there are hundreds of thousands of blog articles on successfully mastering a job interview. But hardly any take intercultural aspects into consideration when it comes to foreigners applying for a job with a German company in Germany. This is particularly sad when it is intercultural misunderstandings that prevent people from being hired.

The following three events are only examples, but they are important

This is not the be-all end-all and hence not the last word on the subject. But we always remind candidates that a German recruiter or hiring managers will always look at a candidate from a German point of view. This may not be a surprise. But what does it mean?

Without wanting to generalize too much, the German mindset will not only be very focussed on the outcome of the interview (“Is this person going to be a good fit for the team?”), but on the way the interview actually goes. Here are three bad practice examples.

Firm handshakes are appreciated

This story is important, not because of the result, but because it is a good case of what can go wrong. A few years ago we recruited a biotech engineer for a company in Germany. She was from Cameroon, spoke German fluently, had a degree from a German university and had made it to the final interview round. So far, so good.

We were not physically present as the interview was on-site. But from what we were told later by the hiring manager, was that her handshake - or lack of the same - made a bad impression. While they had reached out to her expecting a firm shake (i.e. not too hard, but not too soft either), she only presented her hand, didn’t really reach out and just kept her hand loose instead of getting a hold of the interviewers’ hands - and that is what they had wished her to do. Later he would tell us that “it felt like holding a washcloth.” (A taste of German straightforwardness for you here.)

All in all, a handshake is the unspoken word that initiates the interview. It can make or break the tone of what is coming up. On the opposite end of the spectrum, do not go in with too much power up your sleeve. The recruiter will wonder what you're trying to compensate for.

Eye-contact is a must in Germany

When introducing yourself, you should not only have a firm (right) handshake, but a straight posture, smile and repeat the interviewers’ names when you greet them. Even more importantly, you need to ensure you keep eye-contact at a constantly high level. Obviously, you should abstain from glancing at them like a psycho or giving them your crazy eyes look throughout the entire time.

If there are several interviewers, you should recognize their presence by turning to each of them every once in a while. Practice this with your friends and ask them for feedback on whether you are a person that is good at eye-contact or not. We have in fact had many cases in which applicants had their hands folded on the table in front of them and looked down at their own hands - 90% of the time. This is considered disrespectful.

The good hiring managers will test your soft skills without you noticing it

These first two examples were not to say that the lack of eye contact or missing handshake caused the companies to choose somebody else over the candidates. But they surely prevent you from leaving an above-average  impression in the soft skills-department.

In another instance we hired for a role as Business Developer in Berlin. This was an applicant from India. First, of all, in an interview you obviously need to know your stuff, the numbers, the data, the product, etc. But in some roles the “presenting yourself part” is of higher importance here than it is in others. Business Developers are one of these job roles.

Communication skills matter for the German recruiter. But not in a way that they will ask you “Do you think you are a good communicator?” Or “tell us about your communication skills”. (At least not the good recruiters.) Instead, they are going to test that without you noticing it.

Speak up when you have got something to say

It turned out that this applicant had a major weakness. And that was fear of public speaking. You may be wondering why public speaking matters in a job interview since there will only be four to five people in the room - max!

In the job interview It’s about making yourself heard in order to push through with your ideas. So presenting something and presenting yourself go together. And when you break that down, it starts in one on one-scenarios and that includes job interviews where you are with three people in the room or even more.

Our candidate was asked about his approach of growing the business. While he did not respond with a super soft voice, we were later told that they could hardly understand him. Apparently his voice had broken. Here the feedback from the German recruiter was “during the interview I started considering buying these hearing aids everybody keeps talking about.” (Some German humor for you here.)

Practice your public speaking skills

Let’s face it, there are many people who are dying in the conference room when they have to give a presentation. Everybody has been in this situation before. You’re in a room. It gets official, and you have to introduce yourself. What do you say, what do you stress, what do you leave out? So many people are struggling with it. Posture isn’t straight, voice is too quiet, enunciation is not clear.

Your body has different periods throughout the day in which it performs stronger or weaker. But in general, you can practice speaking. Throw yourself out there. Fight your shyness. It’s not what someone is born with. Debate with friends, actively seek situations in which you can speak in front of others. One essentially needs to practice to take more risks and then one gets better.

Consider smiling at Germans when they are cracking a (more or less funny) joke

Germans may have a strange sense of humour. But you might still want to consider (at least) smiling at their jokes. A German cliché is “Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps” with “Dienst” being “work”, which is supposedly strictly separated from “Schnaps” which is supposed to stand for fun. (This is subject to discussion.)

In any case, be aware that your German hiring manager is a person that may have already interviewed five people before you. Especially when it’s on a Friday afternoon they will be looking for a good time - or something they consider a good time. What began as an interview with a software developer from Bulgaria, turned out to be a particularly strange experience.

After the candidate had not laughed about his first attempt to make a joke, the German hiring manager tried to convince him that he was a funny guy, making one joke after another. Whether or not he was trying to test the coder’s social skills by evoking a reaction to his jokes is something we will never know. The guy got the job but it would have made it easier for him to realize he was supposed to show an emotional reaction.

Self-reflection and feedback can help you stay on course

Every interview has its ups and downs, which will reveal your strengths and weaknesses. That is okay. You are not a robot. So don’t let bad interviews discourage you. Ever. Reflecting on what went well and what went wrong and asking for feedback will help you stay on track and on course. Viel Erfolg!