International Experience is NOT a Proxy for Cultural Competency. Here are the Top 8 Characteristics You Actually Want

When hiring folks to work in international development, there’s a higher value placed on international travel experience to low-resourced settings and especially to the regions and countries where we work. Why?

In most cases, I STRONGLY believe that this approach is a BIG MISTAKE.

Take a second to think about this: What’s the demographic of folks who get to travel internationally or live or work abroad for long periods of time? Who gets to forego a real salary to spend two years in the Peace Corps? Most likely, these are the people who have the resources and support (financially and otherwise) to have these types of experiences. Think about how difficult it could be to work, live and/or study internationally if you: 1) financially contribute to your household or others besides yourself, 2) have children or the primary caregiver to a family member, 3) have exorbitant student loans your family can’t help you pay back, 4) have citizenship/visa stipulations, 5) did not grow up in an environment that could prioritize these types of experiences or career path.

In a nutshell, looking specifically for international travel as a job prerequisite serves as an incredible and highly effective gatekeeper to having a more diverse workforce in international development.

Top 8 Characteristics You ACTUALLY Want

1. High levels of demonstrable cultural competency. 

  • I really like Fresno State’s definition of cultural competency: The state of having and applying knowledge and skill in four areas: Awareness of one’s own cultural worldview
    • Recognition of one’s attitudes toward cultural differences
    • Realization of different cultural practices and worldviews
    • Thoughtfulness in cross-cultural interaction.

2. A strong awareness and understanding, as well as mitigation strategies, to effectively engage across historical and changing power dynamics of social identities. 

3. Ability to adapt to changing environments and norms. 

4. Resilience against setbacks and challenges.

5. Ability to establish temporary and effective support systems, especially if more permanent support systems cannot be accessed. 

6. Experience successfully working on racially, culturally, socioeconomically and/or linguistically diverse teams in a meaningful way.

7. Experience living and/or working in low-resourced settings (especially in terms of transportation and telecommunications) or able to meaningfully understand this context in terms of its opportunities and challenges. THIS DOES NOT MEAN INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL. This could also be part of someone’s life experience in how they grew up domestically or internationally. Does someone managing a health clinic in Detroit not understand how to make things happen with limited resources? Does a supply chain manager in Alaska not understand how to design transportation routes to get healthcare commodities to hard to reach areas? 

8. Ability to manage changes in others’ perceptions of your social identity and its associated stereotypes. 

I’ve traveled A LOT both professionally and personally and I can guarantee that I’ve met a bunch of people who cannot demonstrate these skills (more on this soon). As I always say, more international travel experience just means someone could have more opportunities to be an @$$hole in more places. I’d encourage we set up frameworks to evaluate candidates for these characteristics I’ve listed above (and beyond) to get the skills we’re actually looking for to better our company cultures and most importantly, the impact of our work.

In the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a few hiring committees as well as serving as a hiring manager and the biggest change I implement in my criteria is the de-prioritizing international travel experience and instead assess knowledge of the context and cultural competency. And I hope from this short chups, you will as well.

This is part of the “Just a Chups” series, a collection of short-form thoughts on a variety of important topics. “Chups” is Jamaican patois for a “kiss on the cheek”. And because I strongly believe that feedback is love, these short pieces aim to not only think and learn publicly, but just give a little love out there for areas where we may struggle. Enjoy and engage!

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