There are almost 6.2 million foreign-born people in Canada, according to the 2006 census from Statistics Canada. This number accounted for virtually one-in-five (19.8 per cent) of the total population — the highest proportion in 75 years.
Canada’s talent pool should be large enough and more than adequately diverse to ease all talk of a labour shortage. And yet businesses find themselves unable to fill positions with qualified employees. With so many experienced and qualified foreign-born people either unemployed or underemployed, why do employers find it difficult to leverage the full range of skilled labour available in Canada’s workforce?
The problem is certainly not lack of candidates, or lack of skills. Many immigrants have more than adequate technical skills, experience and professional knowledge, yet find themselves working in minimum-wage positions or unable to achieve the full extent of their career potential. The real barrier may be subtle cultural practices and biases of Canadian employers, managers and HR.
Cultural practices influence how we present ourselves both in person and on paper, from how we shake hands to how we describe our professional experience. However, because cultural practices are so ingrained, distinguishing culture from personality and adherence to cultural norms from capability can be difficult.
A seemingly neutral job interview can rely heavily on cultural expectations. If a Canadian interviewer asks a candidate to “tell me about yourself,” the interviewer typically expects a brief summary of the candidate’s job experience and career objective. However, according to cultural practice in some Middle Eastern countries, a full family background and history would be the appropriate response. This would likely seem strange and unprofessional to a typical Canadian interviewer, who may logically screen out the candidate based on this reaction. Yet, according to Statistics Canada, recent immigrants born in Asia, including the Middle East, make up the largest proportion (58.3 per cent) of newcomers to Canada.
Differences such as this may even prevent a foreign-born candidate from making it to the interview stage. It’s generally accepted by Canadian professionals that specializing is key to establishing credibility and developing a focused, successful career. Too much diversity and too many different employers on a resumé can look bad. However, the attitude towards specialization is just the opposite in developing countries, where there are far fewer educated professionals and a breadth of experience and capabilities is expected or even required.
HR departments that have not received proper training to distinguish cultural norms from inherent personality traits may miss excellent opportunities to hire skilled candidates who could be an asset to their organization. Employers who hire new Canadians may be inclined to apply these staff members to behind-the-scenes responsibilities where the employees do not interact directly with clients or manage staff, because their approach to customer relationship management or employee management differs from the expectations of Canadian customers or employees.
Overcoming this challenge is of particular importance to businesses in urban centres. According to Statistics Canada, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver were home to 68.9 per cent of the recent immigrants in 2006. But that’s not to say cross-cultural skills are not necessary for businesses outside of these major metropolises. By tapping into foreign-born candidates from outside these urban centres, businesses can gain a substantial competitive advantage. What’s more, the number of immigrants moving to cities other than Canada’s big three is rising: 16.6 per cent of newcomers in 2006, up from 14.3 per cent in 2001, settled in Calgary, Ottawa–Gatineau, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton and London, Ont.
Canadians frequently pride themselves on their ability to appreciate multiculturalism and nurture diverse society. However, there is considerable room for improvement and Canadian managers, HR professionals and executives have much to gain by recognizing the value in investing in cross-cultural training.
Ultimately, the best way an individual can learn how to work with culturally different people is to work in a foreign environment as a minority, thereby fully understanding the effect subtle (and not so subtle) cultural differences can have in professional situations. Emerging professionals and employers alike are beginning to recognize this fact, as demonstrated by programs that provide participants with first-hand experience in foreign countries so they can learn how to lead in an increasingly globalized business environment.
As immigration continues to rise in Canada, the need for an understanding of cultural differences will become more critical. Fortunately, so will the potential for Canadian businesses to take advantage of the diverse talent available within our own country.
Lionel Laroche is a guest lecturer with the Rotman School of Management’s Omnium Global Executive MBA program at the University of Toronto and an expert in workplace cultural differences.