The dirty little secret about your job application

Chris Pyak: Bridge between international talent and German employers

“Sorry, we cannot evaluate the Bachelor’s degree of the candidate. That’s why we decided to go with another option”. This was one of the more frustrating experiences in my work as a recruiter. My candidate had the Bachelor’s degree from Africa and the Master’s degree from the UK. The lady in the HR department felt unsure about the unfamiliar African university – and decided to play it safe. What she ignored was: The Master’s degree came from the University of Cambridge…

How can it be that the “human resources” in a medium size company decline a candidate from one of the best universities in the world? How come the life experience and professional achievements of international professionals find so little appreciation in the German market?

In a normal week I speak to HR people of about 50 companies. I also coach an endless stream of international professionals – and have worked myself in 5 different countries before returning to Germany after ten years abroad.

I let you into a dirty little secret: The reasons why expatriates don’t find jobs are different from the reasons that we like to tell ourselves.

Three misconceptions hinder the success of international professionals in German business:

FIRST misconception: “Human Resources want the best candidate.”

Chances are high that you are well educated, highly motivated and you possess a proven track record of achievements in your previous jobs. Naturally, your presentation and CV is focusing on these strengths.

Unfortunately this is lost on most HR people: Because you don’t address the one thing that the HR person really cares about.

HR do not want the best candidate. HR want not to be blamed for mistakes.

Consider who chooses a profession in human resources (at least in Germany). HR people seldom become members of boards. Usually they are women. They choose this job because they think: “When I have children I can take a few years off from work and then get back – and not much has changed”.

Human resources attract a high percentage of people who want to play it safe. Therefore: If you are the best candidate for the job, but you also have a lot of question marks – they will reject you. “Better safe than sorry” is HR motto.

To people with this “safe” mind-set everything unfamiliar equals “dangerous”. First tip: Reduce the number of “question marks” in your application as much as possible before you talk about your contribution to the company.

Work experience in Germany, good German language skills, recommendation by mutual contacts, offering a free internship as a chance to get to know each other: All of this helps reduce the perceived “risk”. If you have a chance: Circumvent HR and try to talk directly to the head of the department you would like to work in. They have the main motivation to get the job done – and might be more open to your contribution.

Build a strong network with German people as well. They will know about job opportunities long before you do – and could reduce the perceived risk if they introduced you. So, stop hanging out exclusively with expatriates, ok? 😉


SECOND misconception: “Try working for an English speaking company”.

You are in a great market: German companies play “russian roulette”. Three employees retire – only two young people start their career. One employer loses.
For forty years our birth rate has been way to low. As a result the replacement rate will soon be only 1:2. Many companies have to search for months for new talents – and still cannot fill positions.

You don’t profit from this? Here is why.

One of my clients is the travel website trivago. The business language at trivago GmbH is English. Employees from 60 different countries work in the companies headquarter in Düsseldorf. Trivago gets hundreds of applications, while many German companies can’t find talent anywhere.

A great place to work for English speakers, no doubt. So, they all apply there. And suddenly you go from a market where you are unique and precious – to a market where you are one of way too many.

(This is why I advise my corporate clients to establish English as their corporate language. They will always have more candidates than they can consider)

Where will you get a better job, better payment and a great career? In a job market where you are one out of thousands? Or in a market where you are one in a market of two, three applicants?

All you need to benefit from the second scenario is the German language. Then you can apply where your contribution is much needed: In the millions of German speaking companies in our country.

You are surrounded by 80 million German speakers. I am sure you are way too polite to force them to switch to English every time you enter the room, or? A great career awaits you here. Start learning German today.

(Taking courses will get you only so far. You need to speak. Surround yourself with the Germans. Watch German TV. Read German books, starting with children books)



THIRD misconception: “I’m not a sales person”.

My recruiting company Immigrant Spirit GmbH receives about 100 CVs per week. Many are from awesome candidates. What still surprises me, though is: How many of them do not really try to make a connection.

Sometimes we receive applications that don’t have cover letters or don’t even mention the position for which the candidate applies. Do those candidates really believe that giving us extra work is helping their case? Some don’t even bother to find out which company is offering this job. This smells with desperation: “I just want a job, any job” which is in no way more attractive than “I just want a girlfriend, any girl”.

When you apply for a job then you sell yourself. And selling means: Correctly identifying a need in your partner and offering a solution.

Do not send out hundreds of standard applications. Pick those companies that you really would LOVE to work for. Formulate why working for them would be great. Learn about their real needs – and talk about how you can contribute to their goals. Sounds obvious. But is frequently ignored in real life. PS: Maybe I should say more correctly: Define what work you would love to do. There are careers in great companies that you have never heard of.

And which is the number one need that you should address with HR? Right: Hiring me is SAVE, because…. I already speak German. I have worked in a German company (i.e. you don’t need to be the first one). I get coaching to be more effective in the German business culture, etc.

Which brings me to my last point. Charles Darwin is often misquoted as “Survival of the strongest”. But evolution is not about the most powerful. What Charlie really meant was: “Those will thrive who are best adapted to their environment.”

You live in a new environment now. Germany. Our culture and work habits are different from your home country. Not better or worse – just different. How successful you are in Germany will depend on how well you adapt to our style.

Good news: Success depends on your choices. Go ahead!

Chris Pyak is a business writer and recruiter. As a journalist Chris has worked in 5 different countries. Companies like trivago and Hewlett Packard book Chris to improve the cooperation in their international teams. His company Immigrant Spirit GmbH recruits and retains international talent for companies in Germany. Chris Pyak is available for coaching, training and public speaking.

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