Program breaks cultural barriers

Easing integration into Canadian workplace
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/07/2007

A Southeast Asian engineer who immigrated to Canada had a hard time adjusting to his new work environment. In his country of origin, which had a hierarchical society, he was expected to generate data analysis reports and pass them along to his supervisor without any recommendations because that was a job for his boss.

“If he had presumed to do his boss’s role, he would have been fired,” said Phil Schalm, the program director of the Gateway for International Professionals at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education in Toronto.

But in Canada, he was expected to include his own recommendations along with the technical analysis.

“If he didn’t do that, he would be fired for incompetence,” said Schalm. “It’s a huge shift.”

While the engineer had all the technical skills necessary to do the job well, he didn’t have the soft skills or cultural understanding that would help him succeed.

“When you are in a hierarchical society and you report to someone and someone reports to you, you don’t joke around in your workplace, you don’t show initiative unless you are asked to provide ideas, you do not step outside of your boundaries of your occupation. Whereas, here, people are expected to innovate, people are expected to be proactive,” said Nava Israel, program manager at the Chang School’s Professional Communication for Employment program.

Israel knows first-hand the challenges foreign-educated professionals face in Canada. Even though she emigrated from Israel with a PhD in dietetics and 15 years’ experience, it still took her more than one year to get licensed in Ontario.

But Israel, who developed and ran the Chang School’s dietetics bridging program, saw that the problems faced by foreign-trained professionals went beyond having their credentials and experiences recognized in Canada.

“What we’ve learned is that for internationally educated professionals, even though we have different professions, we all share the same challenges when it comes to integrating into the Canadian culture — the communication skills, the cultural understandings,” said Israel.

To address the need for more soft-skills training, the Chang School developed the Professional Communication for Employment program.

The program, which launches this fall, focuses on four major skill domains: thinking skills in the workplace; people skills; personal management skills; and efficacy in the workplace.

The efficacy domain is about how clearly and appropriately someone communicates, said Israel. For example, a banker working in a hierarchical society would be viewed as an expert and expected to tell clients what to do. The expectation of that same professional in Canada is different.

“Your role as an expert is not to make the decision for the client, but actually facilitate well-informed decision-making, which is a whole different process of communication and cultural understanding,” said Israel.

Israel worked with various employers to determine the levels of performance and competencies needed to achieve certain jobs in various professions. These requirements became the program’s exit requirements.

To start the program, the participants take part in a day-long, industry-specific pre-assessment. The sectors include health and community services, business and finance and IT.

Based on participants’ performance in simulations that assess their aptitude in the four domains, the instructors develop a profile of the participants’ current level and create a tailored program to help them reach the desired level of aptitude needed for their specific job.

“This process is designed that way to ensure people become employable at their desired level in the shortest time possible,” said Israel.

Communication skills are essential to a foreign-trained professional’s success in Canada, said Sunil Khambaswadkar, director of HR worldwide at Algorithmics, a Toronto-based financial risk management firm.

Like many foreign-trained professionals, when Khambaswadkar first came to Canada in 1995 he was well educated (with a master’s degree in HR) and had years of international experience, but he didn’t understand the subtle cultural and communication style differences.

“Those are the types of skills that aren’t taught formally,” he said.

To help other foreign-trained professionals, the company decided to develop its own in-house professional communication program for new Canadians.

The participants’ confidence level has increased dramatically, with many of them taking on client assignments where communication skills are very important, which they wouldn’t have done before, said Khambaswadkar.

To be competitive in any industry, employees have to be able to communicate well with colleagues and clients, added Lynne Tait, Algorithmics’ director of marketing.

“You have this knowledge but if you can’t communicate it, it doesn’t help you,” she said.

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