Thursday, December 16, 2010

Work permit 4 of 5: Interviewing

Oh, I'm a happy man. My mother-in-law is up from Calais for Christmas and amongst her many delightful gifts, she's brought escargot and rillettes de poulet rôti, the latter of which I've smeared on a yummy brown bread and am eating for breakfast while preparing this post.

So, you have a great résumé, you've done your research, you've applied for jobs in your target country and you get an email in your inbox asking if you can be ready for a phone interview at 9 AM on Monday morning.

Phone Struck by Lightning
If you got this far, don't have
a meltdown on the phone.
Photo by David Blaikie
Of course you can. You've worked your tail off for this moment and you're not going to blow it.

However, they might. I was once woken up by my phone ringing at 3AM because the interviewer got their time zone wrong — and that was after I sent back a confirmation email to verify the time in both my time zone and theirs. Of course I still did the interview, but are you going to be prepared enough to handle an interview if you're woken up like that? Yes, you are.

You're going to have a friend or two call you and give you an interview over the phone. They need to grill you hard and make sure they would really want to hire you. They need to hit you with any and all objections they can think of and you have to smoothly address every one of them. You cannot fail this interview.

Kiwis are human too

Humboldt Mountains, South Island, New Zealand
Humboldt Mountains,
New Zealand
Photo by kiwinz
Don't stress the interview too much, though. If they've called an international candidate, they're already intrigued. If you're an Italian with a hobbit fetish¹ and you desperately want to live in New Zealand, just remember that the New Zealander interviewing you may find you — and your accent — as exotic as you think of him or her. And this goes for Americans, too. Even though the rest of the world is inundated with US movies and TV shows, I've still had ladies in Nottingham tell me how much they loved my boring midwest American accent (note to my wife: they were ugly ladies. And old. Really old.)

You're talking to a human being on the other end of the line and if they've taken the trouble to call someone from another country, this is not a run of the mill phone call. They're going to be as curious about you as you are about them. I've had international phone interviews quickly devolve into laughter and discussion of local food and politics (which can be quite dangerous).

The three dangerous questions

No matter how well the interview goes, there are three questions you're almost guaranteed to be asked and you had better nail them.
  1. Why do you want to move to our country?
  2. Can you legally work here?
  3. How soon can you start?
This is where all of your research is going to pay off, but for the "why do you want to move here" question, you're going to have to come up with your own answer.

When I was asked this about the UK, I mentioned that I had family in the UK and Germany and I wanted to be closer to them. I also mentioned that I had previously visited the UK and I loved the country.

You probably don't have relatives in the target country, so that's out. Hopefully you've at least visited. If you haven't, you might be in for a surprise. Some people who think they'd love London discover that it's too polluted and busy for them (I've several good friends who were disappointed by the city). Not having visited hurts your chances, but if you haven't, there's not much you can do.

At the very least, study the country's history and current affairs like mad and explain what parts of it you're fascinated by and how much you've wanted to live there and experience it first hand.

Remember, these are people on the other end of the line; they'll probably understand that answer. Most people have a hidden adventure streak in them and there's a good chance that you'll be admired for it. However, don't just say "for the adventure." Also, don't say anything too negative about your home country. You don't know the person on the other end of the line and if they're turned off by politics or they happen to admire the politics of your country, you may have sunk your boat. Stay positive!

"Take me to the kittens"... // "Llevame a los gatitos"...
Random image of cats.
I love cats.
Photo by Jesus Solana
The really problematic question is "can you legally work here?" This one will also make or break you. If possible, I like to kick start an interview by asking questions of the interviewer. I like to turn the interview into a dialogue, a friendly chat, and forestall this question as long as possible. If it's addressed too early, you may not get a chance to sell yourself. When it's asked, though, the answer is simple:
I need to get a work permit before I start, but fortunately, the process is pretty straightforward.
This is why you've spent so much time learning exactly how the country's work permit system is structured. Explain how they can hire you. When the company in Nottingham wanted to hire me, they were concerned that it would be difficult. I assured them that it wasn't and briefly outlined the process. Then I asked for contact information in the company to whom I should be sending links to explain the process in more detail. I told them where to download forms, what fees they would be paying and what papers they would need to provide. In short, I told my employer how to hire me.

At this point if they're wavering, you need to close the deal. If you have a sales background, you should isolate their objections and deal with them one by one, but there are some issues here. First, you may not be trained to do this. Second, you probably don't know their culture and you may accidentally give offense. Third, they may simply be too polite to tell you the problem or too embarrassed to say that they don't think they can afford you.

Assuming you think that they want to hire you, you can simply deal with the most common objections outright. First, I tell them that my contract should have a provision that I will repay all or some of the relocation costs if I leave the company before a certain date. Another thing I did to guarantee my first UK move was to tell them that I only had to bring over a few suitcases: I didn't have a household full of goods to move and that reduced relocation costs quite a bit.

Finally, "how soon can you start" is the easy one. You're already sick to death of Count von Europe, but you've heeded the lesson and you have nothing holding you back. Your answer is simply "I have to give X days notice to my employer. I can start as soon as my work permit is approved." The reality is that the work permit will usually take a few months (this varies widely), so you're waiting on them rather than the other way around.

Overview of part 4
  • Do mock phone interviews with friends
  • Remember that they'll be as curious about you as you are about them
  • Handle the 3 questions with care
If you've gotten this far, you might, just might, have a company willing to make an offer. That's where part 5 is important: negotiating your salary.

<< Part 3: Applying for jobsPart 5: Salary negotiation >>

1. I would just like to take this time to point out that while searching for images for this post, I've learned that searching for "hobbit fetish" is not a good idea.


  1. More dangerous questions:
    Why would you like to work in our company?
    Where do you see yourself five years from now?
    What are you good at?
    What are you bad at?

    I'm always very nervous about such 'HR' questions, 'cause I'm not so good at selling myself. But this seems to be quite important skill nowadays. It's not enough to answer correct to all tricky technical questions unfortunately...

  2. BTW, any hints about on-site interview?
    Not many companies hiring just after phone interview nowadays.

  3. Ivan: it's interesting that the questions you list and the hints I can give about on-site interviews are all just as appropriate for domestic interviews as international ones.

    For the on-site interview, I always ask how I should dress. I've been dinged in an interview for showing up wearing a tie! You likely won't know the corporate culture up front, so it's hard to guess. Just make sure that you dress a bit better than they suggest.

    Also, have a notepad and pen with you. The notepad has a list of questions you want to ask about the company and you can check them off as they're covered in the interview. Near the end, you'll probably be asked if you have any questions for them and you had damned well better have some! Not having questions tends to show a lack of curiosity or interest. I usually say "you've answered most of my questions during the interview, but there are a couple of things I was wondering about." Even if you don't care about the answers, you still need to ask those questions.

  4. Mr Ovid sir, I spot a mistake! A missing word:

    [...] I still did the interview, but are [you] going to be prepared enough to handle [...]

    Please feel free to delete this comment after correcting.

  5. @Anonymous: what missing word? :)

    Thanks for pointing that out. I've fixed it, but no, I won't delete your comment. I don't mind people pointing out things like this.