Passed over for promotion (Guest commentary)

Emphasis on soft skills makes it harder for foreign-trained to climb internal ranks
By Melissa Magder
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/16/2009

Canadian organizations are unknowingly missing out on a highly skilled and educated talent pool because of cultural disconnects or misunderstandings. Many foreign candidates get passed over for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to perform the job for which they are applying.

Poor soft skills and a lack of Canadian work experience are at the top of the list. These issues have garnered much attention and many organizations are running diversity initiatives and trying to adopt a more culturally inclusive recruitment process. Although these efforts to bridge the gap will help, the challenges for culturally different people don’t end once they have been hired. The same challenges exist when it comes to promotion and retention — but these are rarely spoken about.

Take, for example, the following scenario: A job has been posted in a Canadian organization and an internal candidate from a culturally different background applies. HR conducts the first interview, deems the candidate qualified and moves him forward for a second interview. The hiring manager interviews this person as well as a Canadian-born internal candidate and a Canadian-born external candidate.

Who gets the job? More often than not, one of the Canadian-born candidates. Why? Because feedback from the hiring manager is that although the culturally diverse internal candidate has the technical skills required for the job, his soft skills or communication skills aren’t strong enough. This may very well be the case, but the issue is how such situations are typically handled.

The internal candidate is usually told he didn’t get the job because the other person was a better “fit.” The culturally diverse internal candidate continues to apply to positions as they arise, and is continually passed over for the same reason — until eventually he becomes frustrated and takes a job elsewhere.

Importance placed on soft skills versus technical skills

The main factor leading to the same, repeated outcome is the relative importance placed on soft skills versus technical skills. Soft skills are measured by cultural standards — in this case, Canadian standards — that leave some immigrants out in the cold. Many foreign professionals come to Canada from hierarchical countries that place far less emphasis on soft skills. In such countries, it is the person with the strongest technical skills who is considered most qualified for the job.

Thus, when immigrants don’t get promoted or feel their career progression is stunted, they increase their technical skills with the assumption it will get them further. The outcome is foreign professionals wind up focusing their efforts on a skill set that doesn’t matter (in Canada). The time and energy spent increasing their already sound technical skills would be much better spent developing their soft skills.

What employers can do

The solution to this challenge is twofold. The first step is getting immigrants to understand that soft skills matter. The second step is getting them to understand how much soft skills matter.

In Canada soft skills take on increasing importance as a career progresses. A computer programmer starting his IT career can usually get by with a low level of soft skills. However, if that person hopes to become an IT manager or senior executive, soft skills are essential. The ability to manage people, negotiate and persuade are just some of the soft skills required to progress beyond a certain level in your career.

Also a challenge is recruiters and hiring managers who often don’t want to address the real issue, so they pass it off as a matter of “fit.” If they could see past the uncomfortable conversation and address the real issue, they would see they can help foreign professionals develop and integrate these soft skills into their behaviour. That way, the next time a culturally diverse internal candidate applies for a position, he just might get it.

Melissa Magder is a cross-cultural training consultant with MCB Solutions in Toronto. She can be reached at or visit for more information


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