I’m sure I butchered that title, somehow. I don’t speak Spanish. What I know I’ve learned from Dora, and I’m not sure that girl is playing with all her marbles, linguistically speaking. I would never think to claim I could speak Spanish, for any reason other than maybe comedy. Yet people do this all the time when they write their resumes. One resume like this crossed my desk and created a “career FAIL” moment.
My audit department – eons ago, when I was still a corporate senior manager – had a fair amount of work in Latin and South America. I managed projects in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where my ability in Russian (and sometimes, German) made my work easier. I also managed projects in Latin and South America, but almost always delegated fieldwork to one of the managers who spoke Spanish. At the time our products were taking off south of the border, so the managers and staff were being overworked and we decided to bring on more mid-level staff.
So the calls to the recruiters went out and the interviewees started bouncing in wearing crisp suits and coiffed up for success (this was pre-recession). Unfortunately most of the candidates spoke the Spanish of the mandatory-high-school-language type: they learned it, forgot it and now struggled to stammer out basic phrases. In addition, business Spanish (or any language) may vary significantly from conversational Spanish. When I worked in Russia I knew the words for “accumulated deficit” and “limited joint venture.” I lived in Germany when I was in high school and never learned that type of language – in German I’m conversational. I can talk about food or the weather or sports in both languages, but in German I’m at a loss when discussing business. Most people know the difference. Some people don’t…
One go-getter – let’s call him Rico Suave – came in claiming to speak fluent Spanish. Fluent’s a strong word. A lot of native speakers are barely fluent in their language. Fluency, to me, implies a grasp of slang, culture and a wide variety of vocabulary past “chit-chat.” Rico Suave claimed to speak fluent Spanish. I asked if he would feel comfortable leading audits of business units where English was either poorly spoken or barely spoken at all. He did. I told him we were looking for someone to work in South America. He expressed confidence. I mentioned to him that after he finished his interview with me, the next interviewer was a manager who was a native Argentinian. A look of panic washed across his face. I introduced him to my colleague, and suggested they conduct the interview in Spanish.
What happened next? He could speak Spanish, but not even well enough to discuss his own biography in an interview. Was he nervous? Sure. Could he have prepared for the interview differently if he had known part of it would be in Spanish? Maybe. During phone interviews the need for Spanish skills had been stressed again and again. Could he have avoided the whole problem by claiming to be conversational instead of fluent? Yes. I would rather have hired someone who spoke basic Spanish, because they’d learn all the specialized vocabulary in time. But Rico Suave would have a tough time convincing me he could learn to be honest.
The moral of the story is simple: dress up your resume as much as possible, but be prepared to be challenged – and meet that challenge – on key points. Don’t claim expertise in Dutch accounting if your experience in it came from a college course 15 years ago (yes, that’s me – that was time well spent). Don’t sell yourself short, but remember that skills can be measured. Employers aren’t fools – at least good ones aren’t – and if you’re lucky they detect the exaggerations and dishonesty before you’re hired. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a 90-day probation swing through the company and a gap on your resume.