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Nobody's Perfect Kein Bild? Halb so wild

"Religion eines Bewerbers, Beruf der Eltern... Was geht mich das an?" Ein klarer Fall von TMI, too much information, findet Kolumnist Ian McMaster. Ihn wundert die typisch deutsche Skepsis gegenüber Bewerbungen ohne Foto und persönliche Angaben - and now let's switch to English.

Over the past 20 years, I have read hundreds of job applications from German speakers, looking for work at our company, Spotlight Verlag. Some of the applications were in English, some in German. The jobs they wanted ranged from full-time positions as an employee, through freelance and part-time work, to internships or simply a week's work experience.

But nearly all these applications had one thing in common: they told me far more about the candidates than I could possibly want to know. To my British eyes, they were serious cases of "too much information".

Why, for example, would I be remotely interested in the applicant's parents and their professions and religion?

Perhaps this has something to do with German thoroughness - giving the whole picture in order to establish credibility. A similar concept can often be found in German business presentations, in which a company's history is presented in great detail from day one of its operations. ("Our company was founded in 1897. In 1898, we moved our factory to…")

Useless knowledge about the applicants' religion - or that of their parents

Yet although people from Britain or America may find this Germanic attention to detail strange, or even tedious at times, that doesn't make it intrinsically wrong - any more so than the sometimes joking presentation style of the Brits.

These are simply cultural differences, which we should respect and try to understand. In the German business context, detail, completeness and explicitness are highly valued. And the success of German industry and exports suggests that the country's approach to business works well.

But back to job applications. I still don't understand why I need to know the applicants' religion, let alone that of their parents. This is a private matter - like political affiliation or sexual orientation - and nobody's business apart from the individual's.

Don't tell me and I won't ask. Promise.

The same can be said of many other details that one finds on German job applications, including marital status, the number and ages of children, and even the names of brothers and sisters. What any of these things tell me about somebody's ability to do a job is a complete mystery. So here's the deal: don't tell me and I won't ask. Promise.

But let's take this a step further. Do I even need to know your age and date of birth? Well, maybe if we employ you it would be nice to know this, so that we can remember to say "Happy birthday" and buy you a present. But at the job application stage? Hmm, not really.

Well, what about your appearance? Surely, I want to know what you look like? Well, maybe I do at some basic level of human curiosity. But again, this normally has no relevance to the job you're applying for.

Before I moved to Germany in 1989, I happily read lots of job applications in England - and invited people to interviews - without having any idea what the applicants looked like.

No idea why one candidate sent photos of herself in a bikini

This, by the way, can be true with German applications, too: the people who walk through my door often look nothing like the photos they sent. Also, I have no idea why one candidate followed up her interview by sending photos of herself on the beach in a bikini. (And no, before you ask, she didn't get the job.)

Americans also appoint people to jobs without requiring photos or personal information in job applications. The reason for this discretion is to avoid - or, at least, reduce the danger of - discrimination on grounds of age, race or gender.

I find it hard to understand the opposition of some people and firms to Germany's current experiments with "anonymous applications". Why do companies need any information that is not relevant to the candidate's ability to do the job? They don't, but clearly some Germans find it hard to give up their traditional idea of completeness.

The point that companies could find out much of this personal information about applicants anyway - for example on the internet - is true but absurd. Just because you can't remove all possible sources of discrimination doesn't mean you shouldn't do anything to reduce it. And yes, of course, you'll discover what people look like at the job interview stage, but the point is that you don't need to know this beforehand.

So what should you do as a German-speaker when applying for jobs internationally? Find out about the customs of the country or company you are applying to - and follow them. You may not be punished for breaking a custom - for example, sending a photo with an application to Britain or the US - but why take the chance? When in Rome...

And even within Germany, why not stop telling people about your parents and their religion? It's you who is applying for the job, not them.

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