Nava Israel wrote her PhD thesis in English yet, when the dietician arrived in Canada from Israel 10 years ago, she quickly learned she needed to know more than how to speak the official language. She also needed to understand its nuances and, more importantly, the subtleties of Canadian workplace communication.
“In Israel, for example, when you disagree with someone you say, ‘No, no, no. Let me tell you why not. Here’s the right way,’” she said. “In Canada, that’s seen as rude and dismissive.”
Fortunately, Israel had the benefit of a peer mentor to guide her, providing the feedback she needed to become “more Canadian” on the job.
Immigrants are more likely to successfully integrate into the Canadian workplace if they become more like their local peers, according to a study released by the Progress Career Planning Institute (PCPI), a Toronto-based non-profit business organization with a focus on internationally educated professionals (IEPs).
Settling in will be a unique challenge for both newcomers and employers in the coming decades. The immigrant population in Canada is the highest it has been in 75 years, with one-fifth of the country’s population being foreign-born, according to Statistics Canada.
Educated immigrants will need to understand the cultural norms of the workplace and adapt their behaviour to succeed, according to Silma Roddau, president of PCPI.
“It’s not about becoming less of their nationality, it’s about having more understanding,” she said.
For example, immigrants often come from hierarchical countries where people wait to be told what to do because “it’s considered impolite to move a paper from here to there without being asked,” said Roddau. In Canada, they find the opposite — immigrants are seen as unmotivated or are passed over for promotion because they’re not seen as self-starters.
The study, Winning Strategies for IEPs’ Success in the Workplace, includes four case studies of successful newcomers (including Nava Israel) plus a survey of 188 employers and immigrants. Those who succeed share several common characteristics: they’re highly motivated and take control of their lives; they’re open-minded and aware of cultural differences; they invest in improving their language and communication skills; and they “put themselves out there” to network and open up opportunities.
Israel eventually landed a job at Toronto’s Ryerson University developing a bridging program for educated immigrants. She credits much of her success to the team she worked with at Ryerson and a mentor who gave ongoing and honest feedback.
“As immigrants, oftentimes we don’t know that we walk on mines,” she said. “We don’t see the explosions because they happen behind our backs and people don’t tell us, either because they don’t want to or because they think we don’t see it. They think we just don’t care or they are just too polite to say something, and we don’t learn, which is terrible.”
This is a significant obstacle for newcomer success in the Canadian workplace, said Roddau. Employers fear being politically incorrect, which often makes them unwilling to give feedback.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said. “Feedback is something that is really lacking.”
On the other hand, research from the University of Toronto finds diversity can have a positive effect on the workplace too.
The study Perceiving Expatriate Coworkers as Foreigners Encourages Aid looks at relations between local and foreign co-workers. Co-author Geoff Leonardelli, who is an associate professor in organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto, expected to find negative attitudes, but didn’t.
“The standard assumption has been that group-based differences serve as the basis for distrust, disagreement or dispute,” he said. “However, we find they can actually encourage co-operation.”
When locals perceive foreign co-workers need help, whether it’s a work-related or cultural issue, they’re more likely to offer assistance because they see themselves as experts who can help, said Leonardelli, who is from the United States.
The caveat, however, is they must believe their employer is fair and respectful.
“People have to feel secure within their workplace first,” he said. “When we’re not sure we’re being recognized and valued, there’s more of an ‘us versus them’ mentality. When you have a sense of fairness and it’s coupled with diversity, employees will see that as an asset.”
So, on the one hand, diversity is positive for the workplace but, on the other, newcomers should strive to be “more Canadian”? The two are not incompatible, said Leonardelli.
“Diversity is about the transfer of knowledge both ways,” he said.
Israel agrees but she is concerned the phrase “more Canadian” could be misinterpreted.
“Forget about being an immigrant. Leave that aside,” she said. “People like to be communicated to in a way they like, not necessarily the way you do. If you want to be successful and build relationships and move forward, you have to adapt — no matter who you are. Culture adds a layer but it’s not a separate entity.”
Foreign newcomers are no different from any employee new to the workplace, said Israel. Once they’re trusted and accepted, they have more freedom to share their cultural wealth and experience.
“The real step is for immigrants to take themselves less seriously,” she said. “Don’t think the world is against you, don’t think there’s a conspiracy. Take charge of your own fate. We all bring wonderful assets — you need to sell your assets.”
Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer.
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