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Culture shock in the Canadian workplace

By Veronica Leonard
| www.cos-mag.com

The Canadian workplace culture can be very different for new workers. Employers and their HR departments need to remember that they are importing people, not just skills. New Canadians need to become aware that by attempting to keep up the standards that were taught in their homelands, they can sometimes create problems to workplace acceptance here.

“Just because we smile and say, ‘Yes’ doesn’t mean we understand you,”Yira said apologetically after she had kept me waiting for an hour. Shehad thought I was just asking her opinion of the workshop, not offeringto take her there.

She is one of thousands of new Canadians in our workforce, the vanguard of a wave of immigrant workers who are answering the call on Canada’s worldwide job board to fill the vacancies left by our aging workforce. It is essential that HR officers remember that Canada is not just importing “skills” but people - people who have come from a different culture in both their home and work life, and who are often struggling to find their place in their adopted country. Behind the smile and the eager-to- please “yes,” there are often unspoken questions.

A simple request can trigger panic

Binoj had been a banking officer in India where bosses there were treated with near reverence in terms of politeness. “You do not sit down until they invite you to. If you are sitting down, you immediately stand up to greet them and offer them your seat if they need it. You never talk about your rights, if you want to keep your job.”

He was only allowed one week of vacation his first year on the job, although his contract guaranteed two. When he immigrated, he found work in a Canadian financial firm. He had only been there a couple of months, when his supervisor asked when he wanted to take his three weeks of vacation.

“At first, I was inclined to say I didn’t want any vacation, to please her. Then she told me I could take my vacation anytime with a few days’ notice. I wondered if this was a trick to know if I am going to take holidays instead of working. Only after Only after discussion with some trusted Canadian friends did I believe that this is how Canadian workplaces are.”

Binoj’s supervisor never knew that her simple housekeeping question about vacation schedules had caused him to panic that his employer was looking for an excuse to fire him.

Homeland standards vs. Canadian standards

Not everything is readily transferable from one country to another.

For example, Barbara Bunce recalls being asked to monitor the work placement of a new Russian immigrant. Although she was working in an elementary school library, the immigrant was always very stern and tense. She finally summoned up the courage to ask Barbara why Canadians smiled so much, as school was supposed to be serious. For the rest of the work term, Barbara worked with her on practising her smile until it became comfortable and not forced. Her new smile landed her a job in a dress shop.

For Muslims, the Canadian workplace can be even more confusing. Mary, a staffing officer, recalled having an Iranian immigrant come to a job interiview. When she stood up to shake his hand as she had done to all the other candidates, he put his hands behind his back and avoided making eye contact throughout the interview. In his culture, it was impolite to make physical contact, or even eye contact, with a woman who was not family. The message in her culture was quite the opposite.

Hector Guevara, an immigrant himself, remembers a young Muslim woman with whom he had worked several years ago. When she was first hired, she dressed in western apparel and joked with the other

girls. But as the months passed, she started to take on more traditional Muslim traits, including wearing the hijab (head scarf), long loose-fitting robes, and observing daily prayer rituals. In her own culture, her behaviour would have been seen as maturity, dependability, and the proper way for a woman to behave if she wanted to be taken seriously.

Instead she was treated with alarm and mistrust by co-workers and was increasingly ostracized. Guevara gave her a set of Muslim prayer beads for her birthday and she was overwhelmed by this simple act of kindness and understanding.

Production vs. teamwork

The concept of teamwork is often unheard of in many countries. Alvaro, an engineer from Brazil, says that in his former country you were paid based on your production. If you did not produce your quota, you were not paid. You also learned to be a generalist who could handle many jobs, as companies could not afford to hire specialists and workers had to be highly competitive to survive, as good jobs were not always easy to find. It has been difficult to adjust to the slower pace of the Canadian workplace, where people are paid a salary for their work and take time to discuss the team approach and to apportion the duties of a task. New immigrants like Alvaro are often at odds with fellow workers who feel the immigrants are trying to look good by making the other team members look bad.

Michael Yu, the owner of Easy Move Canada, runs a recruitment agency for workers from the Philippines for the health-care sector. As they already speak good English, Yu feels Filipinos face fewer problems in the workplace. “They are easily adaptable, as they tend to be very observant and mimic the practices [of the  workplace] to blend in more easily. The nurses are very much appreciated by long-term care facilities because of their excellent work ethics and high motivation to work.”

They sound like the answer to an HR prayer, but behind the smile, the eager “yes”, the zealous work ethic, and the careful mimicry of co-workers’ behaviour, is a person who is struggling to fit into a culture that can be very foreign to them. HR professionals have a duty to ensure that the workplace is a safe place where cultural differences can be understood and discussed, where the worker feels free to ask questions without fear of reprisal, and where their vulnerability is protected rather than exploited.


Veronica Leonard is a Nova Scotia-based freelance writer with 15 years experience as an employment advisor. 

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