Work: Where Do You Fit in the Culture of Your Workplace?

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by Veronica Leonard

The culture of the Canadian workplace can be very different from what newcomers are used to and even those with good English are sometimes at a loss for words. Binoj, a financial officer from India recalls, “With Indian bosses you don’t sit down until you are invited to. If you are sitting down, you immediately stand up and greet them and offer them your seat if they need it. You never talk about your rights if you want to keep your job.”

In his first year on the job in India, he was only allowed one week of the two weeks of guaranteed vacation. Binoj was stunned when soon after working at a bank in Canada, his boss asked when he wanted to take his three week 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 discussion with some trusted Canadian friends, did I believe that this is how Canadian workplaces are.”

Binoj was also surprised to learn that being too pleasing and polite is a turn-off for many Canadian bosses. They find it unnatural and think you have a hidden agenda.

The style of speaking and behaviour that was part of the workplace culture in your homeland can get your résumé rejected, cause you to fail a job interview, or stop you from getting ahead in the Canadian workplace.

The Résumé

Canadian employers expect to see a one or two page résumé, in point form, with your education, skills, and work experience and a description of your work duties and how to contact you. They do not want personal information. Ask for help at the résumé and cover letter writing workshops at employment or settlement centres near you. An employer may ask you to give them an official translation of your university courses and marks or a translated letter of reference from your last employer. If so you should ask what translation service they would accept, before you pay for the work to be done.

The Interview

In an interview, employers look for experience and skills for the job and how you would “fit in” at their workplace. The job advertisement often tells what they are looking for. Plan some answers that talk about your skills and experience. Their annual reports, brochures and websites are a good source of information about the company. Proving that you can “fit in” is harder but there are some tips that will help.

Begin with a smile. Barbara Bunce worked as a mentor to a Russian immigrant who was doing her work placement at a school library. She could not understand why Canadians smiled so much in the workplace. Every day she and Barbara worked on smiling. Her new smile got her a job at a ladies dress shop.

Learn to shake hands. A handshake is important in Canada. It means welcome, friendship, and trust. Lasting business deals are made with just a handshake. When Mary, a company recruiter, offered to shake the hand of an Iranian job seeker, she was surprised when he placed both hands behind his back. In his religion, a man did not touch a woman who was not a family member. Although he was obeying his society’s norms, he was offending the norms of his new country. Someone explained to Mary why this had happened but she questioned if he would fit in with her staff.

A website called Arrive BC ( mentions some other body language that can make or break an interview. It’s important to make direct eye contact; it implies honesty and openness. You don’t have to hold the contact for the whole interview but keep making eye contact to emphasize points you think are important or the interviewer will think you are hiding something. The site also suggests keeping a distance of 18 inches when you are talking to someone while standing. Any closer will make them feel crowded but if you stand too far away it will imply a lack of interest.

The Workplace Culture

Be a team player. Share the workload with your co-workers, asking and giving help when needed. Alvaro, an engineer from Brazil, says Canadians take a different approach to work. “In Brazil, we are paid by production. If we don’t meet our quota, we are not paid. We are also very competitive because there aren’t a lot of jobs. In Canada, you are usually paid by the hour, so you take your time.”

This difference can cause tension at work. The new immigrant’s focus on production can take away from the time needed to get team agreement on how a job should be done properly and who is doing each piece. Other workers sometimes feel the newcomer is trying to look good by making them look bad.

Communication is important. You may be nervous about speaking at meetings, and just want to be left alone to work; but try to say something. It shows you are interested. Silence can seem like hostility.

Let people get to know you better. It isn’t easy to join in workplace conversations when you don’t know the people, the TV shows, the sports teams, or community events. Remember that your co-workers do not know what to say to you either. They want to know about your former life but are usually too polite to ask. Don’t be afraid to share some of the good things about your life with them. Bring in samples of foods from your country which are popular in Canada as well. Put up pictures of your family or homeland on your walls or display some typical crafts on your desktop. They can be good conversation starters.

Binoj insists that the best way to adjust to the culture of your new workplace is to build working relationships with Canadians and not just stick with people of your own culture. It can be embarrassing and sometimes humbling but over time you will “fit in” and doors will open for your career to grow.



Many immigrant language schools and settlement organizations offer workshops and instruction on Canadian workplace culture.

A list of organizations is available at: host-spo.asp

Software programs for ESL Students are available online for dealing with Workplace Dilemmas

Other useful websites on workplace culture

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