Cultural Talks: Workplace Communication and Fit

We at SOPA want our clients to feel prepared before arriving in Canada. Whether in job searching or in acquiring a job, if that is all that is achieved, there is still one piece missing. After receiving the job, we want people to be able to keep the job.

Career coaches working with newcomers send their clients on their way with a great résumé, written to current Canadian résumé standards, and with great interviewing skills. But what happens when the client has been in the position for two or three months and has been let go? Career coaches have seen this scenario many times. When the coach asks the client, “What went wrong? Why did your job end so quickly?” the client often answers with, “I don’t know. I did everything that was being asked of me, and I was always there on time. They just told me that I wasn’t a good fit for the position.”

Ahhhh. “You’re not the right fit.” It would have been nice if the employer would have noticed this during the interview stage before the hiring (and firing) took place. But usually, the interview goes well. Cultural differences are masked at that stage. The potential employee looks very professional. It’s possible to prepare and answers all the questions in a way that makes the employer feel comfortable. Candidates may answer questions about both their personality, which involves soft skills and technical abilities.

At the interview stage, Canadian employers will often ask what, on the surface, can be a very confusing question. With the candidate’s résumé in hand, the employer sees that all her education and previous work experiences are from another country. The employer then goes ahead and asks anyways, “Do you have any Canadian work experience?” This is a question that employers in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, have been legally restricted from asking in job interviews. In Manitoba, they can ask, and often still do.

The reason employers in some parts of Canada cannot ask these questions is that there is perceived racism with the question. Human rights tribunals have held that “Canadian experience” questions may constitute discrimination unless that kind of experience is a requirement—qualifications that employers can consider when making decisions about the hiring and retention of employees.

It sounds like the employer is saying, “Only Canadian work is real work,” or “Canadians are smarter than all other people in the world, and they work harder too.” That is not the message employers are trying to send. If an employer just wanted to know if you have worked in Canada, he or she need not waste their own time by having you in for an interview. They could just look at the résumé.

Most Canadian employers recognize skills from all over the world. They recognize the talent that comes through quality education. There are some employers who are asking this question because they have had bad experiences hiring people who were educated elsewhere or only worked outside of Canada before. What are the bad experiences?

Canadian employers do not mind giving on-the-job training, which would be given to any new employee, no matter where he or she is born. Every new employee needs to know where the washrooms are, and everyone needs to know about company policies. What Canadian employers do mind teaching from the beginning, is Canadian workplace culture. Having to fix problems in cultural understanding and correct them over and over, is a bad experience for the employer and for the new employee. The new employee is not even always aware that there is a deepening problem. Sometimes before this awareness hits, it is already too late.

Employers want to know several things. Do you know what it means to arrive “on time” by a Canadian definition? If you have finished your tasks, do you know how to keep yourself busy, without bothering the manager with more things to do? Are you aware of what topics of conversation are allowed, and which ones are too controversial for the Canadian workplace? Can you be friendly and professional with people, even when they are not your friends? Can you be friendly without being flirtatious? None of these things are likely to be written in the employee manual. They are not all items that Canadian workers have always mastered either. (Some Canadians will be fired each year for consistently coming late to work for example.) These questions and others explain the unwritten rules that all workplace cultures have.

There is a Canadian joke that says when you fly through Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson airport, you are going to lose your luggage. It’s a Canadian joke because it has happened to enough Canadians to make it funny. When you migrate from another country to Canada, you will perhaps lose a piece of luggage for a day or two, but you will not lose your technical skills. Your luggage may or may not go missing in Toronto. Your technical skills, knowledge and educational experience will all certainly stay with you as well. What will change overnight is the landscape. The change in workplace culture will make the greatest challenge toward keeping the job. You will call your family or come home to them one day and say, “Canadians work in such different ways from people in our background!”

When people have difficulties with the differences between the old place of work and how things are done in the new place of work, the old place will have to be forgotten. Saying to an employer in Canada, “But in my previous country, I always communicated like this…” is not likely to work. People who adjust to Canadian workplaces from other countries’ workplace cultures, usually have to do 80% of the adjusting. This does not mean you have to change 80% of the way you work. It means that when there are workplace accommodations requested and adjustments to be made, it is the newcomer who generally can expect to do 80% of the work. Your new employer in Canada is usually more accommodating than employers in other countries of the western world. Sociologists studying workplace accommodation show that in the United States, recent immigrants can expect to do 90% of the change when adaptation is required. The level of responsibility for successful intercultural accommodation reaches 99% when you enter the workplace in France.

The mistake people make entering the workplace from other cultures, is that they might forget that once the hard work of getting the job is finished, the hard work of keeping the job takes over.

Martin Blumrich

Learning the Canadian workplace culture takes time. As mentioned, it takes extra energy to listen and observe what is going on around you as a new employee. This is true of all new employees in any new position, anywhere in the world. Wherever you were born, when you start a new job, you are looking for hints as to what the proper behaviour or protocol in a situation might be.

The mistake people make entering the workplace from other cultures, is that they might forget that once the hard work of getting the job is finished, the hard work of keeping the job takes over.

Most workplace problems of culture are related to communication and lack of communication. The top three problems related to communication within a diverse workplace relate to:

  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Using email improperly
  • Differences in what it means to be assertive rather than passive or aggressive

One example from my work life can demonstrate some of these issues. I have worked with a hard-working, pleasant, well-educated and culturally astute colleague who was born and educated in China. When I complimented her, “I think your English has improved,” she replied, “No, I don’t think so.”

I think about her background and that the Chinese education system is so highly competitive that perhaps she is being hard on herself in order to motivate herself toward greater learning. As we have explored this more, she has explained the opposite is true. In her experience, Chinese people are taught to be humble, and it might be hard for some from a Chinese background to accept positive feedback such as compliments.

This is compounded by the fact that my colleague has viewed Canadian and American as using “fabulous” language for common things. When someone did a good job, perhaps a Chinese supervisor might simply say, “Good job.” In North American work, supervisors will often say, “Terrific!” or “Wonderful.” This cycles back to a Chinese worker’s need to be humble and feeling a little lost about such high praise for their tasks. The Chinese worker translates this feedback as perfection, and it’s easy to then be humble in saying, “No, it’s not that big of a deal really.” It can at first, be difficult for Chinese workers to understand and accept feedback, both positive and negative. They must be their own cultural interpreter, asking the question, “What exactly is meant here?”

When this communication happens by email, then there is a whole other set of potential problems of not seeing the person face to face that too easily hinders good communication from happening.

There are many ways in which an employee might not be the right fit for a job. It’s my hope that our readers will not have this experience, especially as it relates to cultural differences. Succeeding in Canadian work does have something to do with Canadian experience certainly.

The best observers adapt the fastest and most successfully. They are less likely to return to their career coach’s office three months after receiving employment. Be sure to observe and ask questions about what you are seeing in the new workplace. Find one person who is willing to be a culture coach in the workplace who you can ask questions, and who can help you adapt with advice. Even better, before arriving for work in Canada, learn the differences between your and Canadian culture. What might look assertive in one culture, might look passive or aggressive in another?

Approved to immigrate to Canada? Join us in our SOPA courses before your arrival to prepare your résumé and your mindset for Canadian success!

Martin has dedicated his career to helping people improve their lives. He has worked with newcomers from over 40 countries to make their homes in Manitoba, Canada. Involved in adult education his entire career, he provides “Canadian experience” through cultural communications courses online. An informative and entertaining speaker, Martin delivers specialized workshops on issues ranging from religious diversity to the soft skills needed to succeed in diverse workplace cultures.

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