Cultural training a ‘two-way street’

Understanding cultural biases helps employers overcome conflicts
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/21/2006

On Canadian streets, the sight of a police officer doesn’t usually inspire fear in citizens. After all, police officers are there to ensure safety and inspire confidence in the people they are charged with protecting.

But when a worker comes to Canada from overseas, from a nation where the police force is corrupt and not to be trusted, the sight of a police officer can spark fear. That’s one barrier ExxonMobil, an Irving, Texas-based oil giant, faced when it brought workers from the war-torn African nation of Angola to Nova Scotia for technical training and to improve their English skills

“With the civil war in Angola, the police were not to be trusted,” said Sterling Feener, manager of customized training at the Nova Scotia Community College in Sydney, N.S.

To help trainees overcome their fear of the police, the school brought officers into the classroom to talk about their jobs and give the Angolans the chance to become more comfortable with them.

The college worked in partnership with the University of Cape Breton and ExxonMobil to provide English and advanced technical training for employees deemed to be star recruits. But cultural training and understanding was also a big component of the program that has seen about 90 Angolan and Russian workers live in Sydney for one year since 2001.

“There is definitely a culture shock, there’s no question,” said Feener. “Whether they’re here for 12 months or 12 years, that initial period is going to be the same for any person coming over.”

The trainees from Angola and Russia didn’t work in Canada; they returned to their home countries where they work alongside North American workers and the cultural lessons they learned in Canada help them interact with these colleagues.

“The whole aim was to expose them to as much Western culture as we could,” said Feener.

In the cultural sessions, another area of focus was how people interact with each other and respect each other as individuals in Canada. The Russians had a hard time taking direction from women, while both the Russian and Angolan workers equated age with authority, said Feener.

“We made sure we addressed that,” he said. “In Canada, male, female, that’s not the point. The point is you have a line of supervision and you need to be respectful to your co-workers and your supervisor regardless of age or gender.”

As this example shows, cultural training goes both ways, said Rensia Melles, director of clinical products and global services at employee assistance provider FGIworld. Understanding the cultural norms and biases of the foreign workers is important to the success of cultural training.

“You acclimatize people coming into the culture to prevent workplace conflict, but technically it should always be a two-way street,” she said. “Not only the people coming in, but also the people managing and working with these people should have a good understanding of the cultural differences.”

It’s also important for organizations and Canadian workers to realize how difficult it can be for an outsider to come to Canada. Simple things Canadians take for granted, such as getting insurance, opening a bank account or getting a loan, can be overwhelmingly complex for someone from another country, said Melles.

“We sometimes don’t realize how hard it is to come into this country, both culturally and administratively,” she said.

The availability of certain products also shapes cultural norms, something most people aren’t even aware of, and these norms can cause tension in the workplace. Melles recalled one company she provided with cultural training where a group of foreign workers came from a culture where personal hygiene products weren’t as available as they are in North America. As such, the expectations around body odour were very different.

The workers didn’t use deodorant because it wasn’t something that was habitual in their culture. When they came to work, even though they were clean, they still smelled differently, said Melles.

“That created a lot of tension in the workplace with people not understanding that these people had a different way of dealing with body odour and personal hygiene,” she said

Another cultural norm that Canadians take for granted is a co-operative style of management. This can cause conflicts when the leadership expectations of a worker who comes from a more hierarchical culture aren’t met, said Melles.

“People could become very disappointed with their Canadian manager because they’re not giving them enough guidance or direction and just leaving them to their own devices. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t competent, it means that combination isn’t working,” she said.

However, with the proper support and insight on both sides, these cultural clashes and misunderstandings can be prevented, she said.

“I do see that Canada is starting to become more culturally aware,” said Melles. “It appears the requests (for cultural training) are being prompted from companies purposely bringing in new staff from other countries.”

While more companies seem to realize the need for cultural training, many still avoid the extra work and hope things will work out for the best, she said.

“Companies would rather take the chance that things fail and then fix them after,” said Melles.

This is the approach Ocean Choice, a Souris, P.E.I.-based lobster processing plant, took when it hired 19 Russian workers in May. The workers were brought in for eight months to help with a labour shortage during lobster season, said company spokesman Jack MacAndrew.

“Their interest while they’re here is to work as many hours as possible in as many days as possible to make as much money as possible to take back with them to Russia,” he said. Working six days a week, 10 hours a day, doesn’t leave a lot of time for cultural integration programs, he added.

So far there haven’t been any culture clashes and the Russians have been working well alongside Canadian workers at the plant, said MacAndrew.

The company found accommodation for the workers at a nearby motel with cooking facilities and the community held a welcome celebration, but there haven’t been any formal cultural training programs, he said.

“During lobster season, the work schedule is almost non-stop,” he said. “There’s not a lot of time for cultural programs, number one, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of interest on the workers’ part.”

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