National Culture

Shackleton and Newell (1994) conclude that 'habit, tradition and culture determine the choice of selection method much more than do the relative predictive validities of the techniques' (p. 91). From a general perspective, the edited book by Tim Clark (1996) compared human resource management practice across seven European countries and demonstrated the divergence of practice. Clark (1996) argues that research should seek to understand the distinctive features of national culture and to consider how this influences the 'special understanding' of HRM in each nation. However, there are relatively few direct comparisons of these 'special understandings', especially in relation to selection practices. In one of the few empirical studies considering the link between national culture and selection method use, Ryan et al. (1999) did indeed find differences between countries high and low on uncertainty avoidance and between countries high and low on power distance (Hofstede, 1991). For example, countries high on uncertainty avoidance used more types of test, conducted more interviews and did more thorough audits of their processes. However, contrary to predictions, companies in countries high on uncertainty avoidance used overall fewer selection methods and verified backgrounds of candidates less. They explain the contradictory findings as being the result of the uncertainty avoidance manifesting itself in relation to avoiding the use of uncertain methods of selection (i.e. sticking to proven methods only – tests) and avoiding uncertain information sources (i.e. uncertain background information obtained from references), rather than in relation to avoiding uncertainty about the candidate.

Baron, Ryan and Page (1998) considered three dimensions of culture described by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1993) and looked at how these were related to differences in selection method use in 14 countries. Their suggestions include:

1. Universalism versus Particularism: universalist cultures tend to look for universal, rational, objective rules and solutions while particularist cultures emphasise relationships (which may mean bending rules if this is important to save a personal relationship). China is an extremely particularist culture and they argue this explains why Wang (1997) found that companies in China relied on economic and personal information rather than task-specific information. In such a culture the emphasis is on getting to know the individual rather than trying to acquire objective verifiable information, as would be the case in a universalistic culture. In contrast, from their own survey, Switzerland and Canada (both high on universalism) have a preference for structured interviews, while France, Greece and Italy (all high on particularism) all rely much more on unstructured interviews.

2. Neutral versus Emotional: neutral cultures are ones where the expression of emotion is either hidden or denied. Emotional cultures are the opposite. Baron, Ryan and Page (1998) use anecdotal experience to suggest that this manifests itself in differences in interview style and emphasis. For example, in emotional cultures as present in Southern European countries, they are likely to rely heavily on one interview and be more influenced by the affective content of what is said. On the other hand, in neutral cultures like China and Britain, the emphasis would be on assessing the candidates' intellectual skills, and they would emphasise interviewer training to ensure the interviewer is not 'falsely persuaded' by idiosyncratic issues such as personal liking.

3. Achievement versus Ascription: achievement cultures focus on what an individual has done and what s/he has achieved, while ascriptive cultures focus on position and title (regardless of how these were acquired). Therefore in selection, achievement cultures would assess the candidates in terms of college grades and individual experience while in ascriptive cultures family background and place of study would be more important. In conjunction with this hypothesis Baron, Ryan and Page (1998) found that more achievement-oriented countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada were more likely to follow up references and to use cognitive ability tests. In contrast, in high ascriptive cultures, for example Poland, more emphasis was placed on family connections, while in Japan, having attended the 'correct' school and university is of paramount importance.

Variations in national culture, therefore, appear to be related to the differences between countries in use of selection methods. There are probably other reasons for the observed differences in selection method use across countries. What is needed now is research that more directly focuses on understanding the sources of national variability. This is important because these sources of variability have implications for the relevance of these national differences, as will be discussed in the next section.

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