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Headhunting for foreign experts, the untold stories: The challenging ‘hunt’ followed by dilemmas of culture conflict


Posted by Ngoc Thuy Nguyen

over 1 year ago

Many Vietnamese companies wish to recruit foreign employees, who are expected to bring a complete change in the business process or simply a brand-new perspective, but cultural differences might cause things to go under expectation.

Ms. Thanh Huong, with 13 years of experience in recruitment services at Navigos Search, remarks on the challenges in recruiting foreign personnel due to the cultural differences in working styles.

She recalled a foreign applicant recruited by a Vietnamese firm, who insisted on resignation after just two months. The employee, upon recognizing limitations within the company, informed the executives and proposed some solutions, but was met with no response. Feeling discouraged, he was on the verge of leaving.

“It is typical for foreigners to commit to drastic measures, while the Vietnamese are more likely to take it slow. However, it is necessary to recognize that two months is a relatively short period of time to accommodate immediate changes, whether in a Vietnamese or foreign environment. On one hand, I persuaded the candidate to calmly stay by sharing more about the Vietnamese corporate culture. On the other hand, I was advising his Vietnamese superior on the employee’s suggestions. Fortunately, his proposals were gradually accepted. He has been working with the firm for a few years now.”

But the happy ending was not always the case. According to Ms. Huong, there were several cases where the employed candidates had extensive expertise, but they were lack of effective communication and leadership due to cultural differences. Recognizing this, the company decided to employ Vietnamese employees for the same positions instead, which turned out to be substantially more positive.

According to several professional headhunters, the majority of demand for international experts requires considerable expertise, coming from such industries as information technology, petroleum refinery, automation, etc. or numerous areas of the service industry. Additionally, strong demand for top-level managers with constant up-to-date knowledge of advanced technology can be seen, where Vietnamese managers are aware but do not possess extensive knowledge. Compared with recruiting Vietnamese candidates, that of foreign ones has proved to be significantly more challenging. One of the first difficulties faced by headhunters, says Ms. Huong, is the different time zones, making it harder to arrange interviews. Additionally, the lack of face to face communication could hinder the exchange of information and detailed explanation about the position, as well as the working style in Vietnam.

“In fact, our services also encompass following-up with the candidates on their working life in Vietnam. For instance, how is their accommodation in Vietnam at first, or whether they can fit in with the corporate culture? We also pick candidates up at the airport and provide initial support so they can settle in a new country.” says Ms. Huong.

Sharing the points with Ms. Huong, Ms. Bich Ngoc, another recruitment consultant at Navigos Search, says cost is another matter of consideration for companies. Foreign top-level managers, who are employed under two to three-year contracts, often require that their family accompany them, and therefore incurring costs on accommodation, tuition fees in international schools for children, insurance, etc. 

International candidates: a double-edged sword

According to Mr. Le Minh Dung, in charge of Navigos Search’s recruitment in the areas of petroleum, energy and heavy industries, Vietnamese companies are witnessing dramatic changes, including improved working environment, which has attracted more and more foreign employees. Political stability and friendly society are also appealing to many expats coming to Vietnam for a career.

“Foreign employees are capable of delivering positive changes and values to Vietnamese firms. If given the opportunity, a network of expats can be formed to attract other highly qualified foreign employees.”

“Efforts to recruit foreign employees are like a double-edged sword. While many companies benefit from a suitable candidate, others find that their requirements are not met, and must subsequently continue the search for a more suitable employee, who can either be another foreigner or Vietnamese”, says Mr. Dung.

In the search for a foreign candidate, Vietnamese companies often set their expectation quite high regarding the candidate’s expertise and experience, in the hope that they could provide a learning and sharing environment for their Vietnamese colleagues. Nevertheless, the companies themselves have not prepared favorable conditions for the candidate to perform at their full potential.

“Conflicts in corporate organizing and culture, such as punctuality or meeting deadlines, etc. hinder the expat’s acclimatization and development.”

Mr. Dung further remarks that there do exist capable Vietnamese candidates, who possess considerable experience and leadership that earn respect from their foreign counterparts. Therefore, expats should only be considered an additional source of personnel, not a replacement for locals, nor a driving force that help Vietnamese companies instantly thrive.

The most important point is that Vietnamese firms should provide favorable conditions for foreign employees to reach their full potential. The recruitment of foreign personnel does not ensure an instant positive shift, as it requires open-mindedness at all levels within the company, from management to employees, and other appropriate changes in the business process.

“The decisive factor here is not the successful recruitment of foreign employees, but the opportunity created so that these employees can extensively contribute to the company’s development”, the Navigos Search’s expert emphasized. 

Source: Bao Dien Tu Tri Thuc Tre (