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Adapting to the Canadian workplace culture

Adapting to the Canadian workplace culture

Immigrants bring valuable knowledge and skills to the Canadian economy; however, in spite of their high qualifications and hard work many of them face challenges in starting and advancing careers in their new country. Most of these challenges occur because newcomers are often unaware of the differences between the work environment in their home countries and the Canadian workplace culture in terms communication, distribution of responsibilities, feedback, networking and others. The good news is that by learning to understand the unique Canadian workplace and adapt to it newcomers can avoid misunderstandings and can put themselves on the road to success.

Here are five characteristics of the Canadian workplace culture:

1 – Canadian Workplace  – Egalitarian culture

“Canadian workplace culture is far more egalitarian than the cultures in many of the countries where immigrants come from, which are more hierarchical,” says Sabina Michael, career coach and education program manager at Rotman School of Management at U of T. A high percentage of the immigrants come from highly hierarchical cultures, Michael explains, where managers are in charge of finding solutions, taking most of the decisions, giving detailed orders and guiding their employees in their day-to-day activities.

In egalitarian cultures like the Canadian, however, employees still have to follow directions, but they are to a much higher extend expected to show initiative, identify problems, suggest solutions to their managers and discuss the actions that have to be taken. “So you can imagine,” Michael says, “what it means for newcomers from hierarchical cultures not to understand the egalitarian style in Canada – they might wait to receive orders at every single step of the working process and expect their managers to support them and guide them all the time – and when this doesn’t happen, from their perspective it might look like, ‘This person doesn’t know how to manage!’ Whereas the managers might think these employees lack initiative and are too needy.”

2 – Canadian Workplace – Indirect feedback

For newcomers understanding feedback is one of the most confusing parts of the Canadian workplace communication. Canadian communication style is usually regarded as direct, but when it comes to feedback, things are different. When Canadians give negative feedback, they wrap it in positive comments – for example, “Your report is very good. It would have been even better if you have clarified the main idea. Excellent first attempt!” Unfortunately, employees who come from other cultures and are not aware of the Canadian feedback style might not be able to identify the critical messages hidden in positive wrappings and might think they are been praised. As a result, they might fail to take corrective actions and this can damage their careers.

As an example of such misunderstanding, Joanna Samuels, Employment Specialist at Newcomer Services at JVS Toronto, points out the unfortunate case of an internationally trained IT and JAVA developer she placed in an IT company in Canada. “They kept telling him how great he was, [that] he was doing a great job,” Samuels says. “So after two weeks … he directly goes to the supervisor and says, ‘I want a raise, I am doing a great job, I want a raise.’ And guess what happened: they were in shock! The Canadian managers were in shock. He got fired. He got hired for his technical skills and he got fired for his soft skills. So [feedback] is a whole area that has to be learned and explored, and researched, and applied.”

3 – Canadian Workplace – Importance of “soft skills”

In the Canadian workplace, interpersonal skills, also called “soft skills”, are often considered even more important than the technical, “hard skills”. “Soft skills” include integrity, ability to work in team, open-mindedness, tolerance, flexibility, positive attitude, time management, presentation skills, leadership qualities and ability to motivate co-workers. One of the reasons “soft skills” are becoming indispensable is the increasing ethnocultural diversity in Canada.

Tension and obstacles can easily occur at work as a result of employees’ different cultural paradigms and the lack of knowledge and understanding of others’ cultures. Learning and being aware of these differences, keeping an open mind and not making fast judgements can prevent many conflicts at work, reduce stress and contribute to a healthy and productive environment.

4 – Need of being mindful of the cultural differences

Many immigrants to Canada expect that their valuable skills, hard work and years of experience in Canada would be enough to ensure their career advancement. However, they are often disappointed when time passes and they realize that their efforts have not been noticed. As Sabina Michael explains, the problem is that they haven’t taken into consideration the differences between their countries of origin’s work culture and the Canadian one. In hierarchical cultures for example, she explains, managers are much more engaged with the work of their employees, know how much effort they had made every day, what capabilities and potential they have, and how long they have been holding their positions. So if an employee performs well, after certain amount of time the manager suggests a promotion.

In egalitarian cultures like Canada, however, employees are responsible for their own careers. They have to let their managers know that they expect a promotion. And also they have to make sure that the managers are aware of the good job they have done. Gaining such “visibility” can be challenging especially for immigrants who came from countries where being humble is considered a virtue. Michael´s advice on this issue is, ”When you are about to do something fantastic, tell everybody what you are going to do, do it well and then tell people how well you have done it. People at work should know what you are doing, what your potential is and should talk about you. But you have to be careful – because in Canada there is a fine line between telling people about yourself and boasting.”

A better understanding of the uniqueness of the Canadian workplace culture can help immigrants overcome their challenges and advance their careers.

5 – Role of visibility in career advancement

Networking in Canada is crucial both for finding jobs and for career advancement. In finding employment networking is the way for candidates to approach the “hidden job market”. As a publication of Ryerson Career Development and Employment Centre at Ryerson University points out, 80 per cent of all positions are filled without ever being advertised by the employers. These positions are filled through personal recommendations, recruiters or through direct contact of the decision-making employers with candidates who had somehow come to their attention. To access these unannounced vacancies, job seekers have to find ways to reach the employers’ networks, find information and people who would recommend them for the positions.

After the first goal is achieved and a job is found, however, employment specialists advise not to stop networking since it is essential for progressing in one’s career. “You have to continue building your network,” Joanna Samuels recommends. “You can’t just do your little job at your little desk – you have to be able to branch out and meet as many people at your company [as possible]. Continue your education and continue building your professional relationships within your company and your social media, so outside or your company too, to keep current in your field. Join groups, go to conferences, trade shows, volunteer in the community, do not stop any of these activities that you did to get the job, continue while you have your work.”

Lucy Slavianska

Ready to dive into Canadian workculture? Checkout our video blog on ‘How to have a career, not just a job, in Canada’ here.


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