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Saturday, March 25, 2006

The "Form over Substance" & "Unrealistic Expectations" Syndromes

Want to know why people ... even native Germans ... find it so hard to find a job in Germany ? There are two "syndromes" prevalent in the German job market: "Form over Substance" and "Unrealistic Expectations".

The "Form over Substance" syndrome is exhibited largely by employers, but also to some extent by the applicants. A good example of the latter is when many applicants address their "Bewerbung" to the head of HR ... that is a joke, since the head of HR is rarely the hiring manager. As to the former (by the employer), it manifests itself in many forms.

First of all, the person who seems to hold the life and death power over a Bewerber's fate is a Secretary or Assistant. The first thing she (rarely he) determines is whether or not your application is complete. Anschreiben (cover letter), Lebenslauf (literally translates to "Life's run, but is essentially a Curriculum Vitae or CV), Foto, and Zeugnisse (certificates and letters of recommendation) are all there. If, like me, most of your prior experience is undocumented because US employers no longer give letters of recommendation, the going starts to get tough. Again, I'm not the first American to apply to some of these larger, mult-national companies, but from the responses I get about the Zeugnis issue one would certainly think that I am.

If you get past the "completeness" stage, then you get into the "suitability" stage. You are still often at the mercy of the Secretary or Assistant, who will look first at the Foto on your Lebenslauf . If you are ugly or look old, your CV lands in the circular file. This person might also actually look at your "qualifications," which to them means things like age, gender, and nationality. Being an American is not an automatic disqualifier, but being over 35 or 40 might be. The Secretary or Assistant might not conciously judge you on being male or female, but a lot of unconcious sorting takes place at this stage, with women mysteriously finding more opportunity in the lower grade jobs and men magically finding more opportunity in the higher grade jobs. There are many reasons why American firms do not ask for fotos or such personal data on resumes any longer, and this is about the best summary of why. The point is, Germans still do these things despite the blatant waste of Human Capital that these things lead to. In a survey of German employers experience with applicants, they state that 37% have "Personlichkeit" that does not fit the job/company. Appearances do matter, so get a good foto.

The "suitability" stage also includes an anal editorial review of your documents to see if you have caught all of your own errors. One typo and you are history. My own documents are perfect, but the one and only Zeugnis I have from a former employer does have typos. I'm not sure if that counts against me, but I have gently asked my former employer to correct the Zeugnis, because it probably does.

The "suitability" stage is repeated later as candidates are actually reviewed against "unrealistic expectations." You will often see ads seeking people with at least 8 years of experience in a managerial role who, by the way, should ideally be 35 or younger. Considering that most Germans are barely out of school by the time they are 28, this is somewhat paradoxical. How could someone have been a manager for 8 years when they were barely entering their peon years at 28? The truth is that youth is more prized than experience, so faced with a 45 year-old person with 15 years of stellar experience and a 34 year old who might have mismanaged a project or two, the natural bias is to go for the "better looking" young person, who obviously has the energy to continue to drive projects. I am blessed to look fairly young for my advanced age, but that doesn't always matter since your date of birth is right there next to or below the picture. German employers surveyed indicate that 7% of applicants are too old for the position. I have actually heard an employer tell a 29-year old, "Good. That's the right age!" If you are over 40, for example, you better look young and engergetic, because the assumption is that you are not energetic and are probably stuck in your ways.

At this point, if you have reached this point, you might be called in for a Vorstellungsgespraech (pre-employment interview). Your "qualifications" are deemed to be worthy enough to merit further consideration. Here it is good that you have a good conversational command of the Language, but they do take some pity on qualified Auslanders. I've been told that large German companies love to hire Americans, but I think that was more 1990's than now, and as the fall of the Wall grows more distant in time, the Germans are perhaps still fond of Americans, but do not see them as the lofty business types that they are eager to hire. If you could get away with speaking poor German ten years ago, you probably won't today. Here it is handy to have another Zeugnis in the form of a ZD (Zertifikat Deutsch) or ZMP (Zentrale Mittelstufenpruefung) to show officially that you have been schooled ... best that it show at least "Gut" or "Sehr Gut".

If you have made it this far, then we can talk about the job. Oops, maybe not ... Chances are you have already been asked about money. German employers surveyed state that 37% of applicants have too high an expectation for compensation (it is tied with Personal presentation as the numbers one and two disqualifiers of applicants). This presents me with an interesting paradox, since the jobs I have been competing for all involve having global experience, which means that I should be globally priced ... my global price is about 175% higher than a German employer would be willing to pay for a local. The paradox is that at least one of the companies wanted someone with global experience who also had experience in integrating an American acquisition into its new German parent. Very few locals have real, hard experience in this, much less doing it well, but even then the employer has re-posted the job four times in the last three months after rejecting me for unspecified reasons despite me having successfully done this sort of thing (how did they think I decided to move to Germany?). Besides, Germany is not so much cheaper than New York or London that I am so willing to take a pay cut, especially since it would kill my re-entry to either New York or London.

OK, now we can talk about the job. If you actually have experience, congratulations, because you are not one of the 16% who are underqualified. But be careful, because you might be one of the 5% who are overqualified. Also be sure you are not one of the 16% who have unrealistic expectations, like working only half-days in a full-time job. Motherhood is not supposed to count against you, but it can if you want to be anything more than a receptionist. Finally, 35% do get knocked out of the box for a dearth of job knowledge (yes, Virginia, it is possible to have experience and still not have the knowledge to do the job).


Blogger christina said...

Hi Mike! Thanks for commenting on my blog. I'll put you on my expat blogroll.

Good luck with the job search. :-)

2:43 PM, March 25, 2006  

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