Canada is a vast country rich in cultural diversity; with the advent of technological advances and economic globalization, Canadian businesses are focusing more on recruiting workers who can demonstrate they possess the necessary “soft skills” for working within various work environments. These “soft skills” requirements are intangible and difficult to quantify; and are often lost on new immigrants to Canada.
As an employment specialist for 25 years, I have worked with many new immigrant clients over the years and have been repeatedly told by these recent arrivals that they lack Canadian experience to find work in their own profession. Though most immigrants have immigrated to Canada with the technical competencies and direct occupational experience from their home country, they often assume this lack of Canadian experience means having direct work experience in Canada.
One day over coffee, I had a discussion with my sister who is an employer for a Health Care facility.  I asked her what does having ‘Canadian experience” mean to her as an employer. She promptly shared that it means being able to understand Canadian workplace culture and to fully understand what quality service means to both internal and external customers.
She then went on to further describe and elaborate on some of the challenges she has been facing with workers who lack Canadian workplace experience:

  • Speaking in their native language at the workplace but not aware that this may create an environment of exclusivity
  • Bringing expensive gifts for the boss but not aware that this may be perceived as bribery for future special favors.
  • Mis-understanding what customer service means within the Canadian context as providing service to others is perceived as a role of servitude
  • Espousing the multiculturalism of Canada but does not demonstrate an interest in other cultures in the workplace other than ones’ own
  • Having difficulties handling feedback as learning opportunities for personal & professional growth; some reactions that have been observed include:
  • tendency to pass blame
  • lack of willingness to admit mistakes
  • perceive critical feedback as a personal attack or institutional racism
  • does not ask for clarification and pretending to understand

Employers like my sister are looking for workers who are able to demonstrate that they will be able to adapt and blend in with the team and to represent the goals and values of the organization. It also means that potential workers must possess the self-management skills required to build and maintain strong workplace relationships. These “soft skills” are culturally defined and are generally learned through life experiences rather then through academic training.
Soft skills are the qualities that are necessary and required to establish trusting and collaborative working relationships with others.  To be successful in a Canadian workplace, new immigrant workers must be able to demonstrate the following:

  • Canadian Business Etiquette: To understand that every culture has their own unique social nuances and norms, and in Canada, eye contact, a firm handshake, appropriate use of personal space, a friendly smile and small talk are necessary social graces to establish rapport and build relationships.
  • Cross Cultural Communication: Respectful, understanding and appreciative of cultural diversity and Canada’s mosaic social landscape.

Be culturally sensitive and aware that what may be perceived as socially acceptable behavior in one culture may not be acceptable in another
To be open to another perspective that is different from your own and to find common ground to establish collaborative relationships.

  • Emotional Intelligence: To be self aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Be accountable and responsible for own actions; learn from one’s mistakes and be open to feedback or constructive criticism. Making mistakes is how we learn and grow, no one is perfect.
  • Adaptable and Flexible: Ability to assume multiple roles and to be able to cope with the stressors of changing circumstances and situations. To be open to different ways of doing things, and to other perspectives.
  • Team Orientation: Being a team player means being positive and able to work well with others, going the extra mile to help team members to meet tasks and project deadlines. Understanding that a positive attitude and outlook fosters an environment that helps the team meet the goals and vision of the organization.
  • Conflict Resolution and Negotiation: The ability to resolve conflicts by being able to hear what is not said and to listen without prejudice. To be able to identify the issue and to understand the view point of another without one’s ego or personal biases getting in the way. To understand that the ultimate goal is to create a collaborative and trusting relationship, not about being right or wrong.
  • Customer Service: Ability to anticipate and identify the needs of others with an attitude of helpfulness, accompanied by a friendly smile.
  • Leadership Qualities: Problem solver who possess the initiative to provide solutions or direction when needed while making others feel supported and motivated. To have emotional control when in the face of conflict and adversity. To understand that leadership qualities are not defined by having a formal job title of supervisor or manager.

These interpersonal and communication skills are weighed equally with academic credentials, technical competence and experience. Soft skills have become equally important if not more important then the hard skills within Canadian workplace cultures.
As a result of the importance of these skills, Canadian human resources professionals and employers have been using behavior based questions for determine the suitability of a candidate during employment interviews.
These types of questions are challenging as they tend to be open ended which allows the candidate a lot of flexibility in answering the question. Responses to these questions are not black and white.  The premise behind these types of questions is that past behaviors will be an indication or reflection of one’s future behavior in similar situations.
Following are examples of behavior based questions:

  • Could you tell me of a time when you had a conflict with a coworker?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to resolve an issue over the phone with an angry customer.
  • Describe a time when you had to make a difficult decision that impacted your team.
  • Give me an example of a time when you demonstrated good leadership and team building skills.

New immigrants find these behavior based questions perplexing and often do not understand the relevance of being asked such questions when they already have the academic credentials and technical competence to qualify for the job. Moreover, they will more than likely respond to these types of questions within their own cultural experiences and not fit within the social norms of Canadian workplace culture.
Understanding Canadian workplace culture is a challenge for new immigrants as they often miss many of the social cues and nuances which are subtle and may also be dismissed and perceived as inappropriate due to cultural differences.
Attending settlement and employment services will assist and mentor new immigrants in becoming more familiar with the social graces, attitudes and behaviors of Canadian workplace cultures; and to learn job search techniques and strategies within the Canadian context to find work in related fields.
But more importantly, as these “soft skills” are culturally defined and are generally learned through life experiences rather than through academic training, the one advice that newcomer job seekers have heard time and time again, but perhaps have not yet embraced, is VOLUNTEERING.
It is through life experience, such as volunteering, where one may pick up social cues or nuances, from repeated interactions that generate unexpected reactions. It is where one meets people from literally all walks of life and discover that perhaps being an immigrant does not automatically mean one is an expert on culture diversity. It is through the trial and errors of these interactions, the newcomers may craft their skill at establishing a collaborative working relationships with others.
Lack of Canadian experience does not mean a lack of having direct work experience in Canada. Employers are looking for workers who are able to demonstrate that they will be able to adapt and blend in with the team and to represent the goals and values of the organization. It also means that potential workers must possess the self-management skills required to build and maintain strong workplace relationships.
There are plenty of other ways to demonstrate to employers that you have these skills without having worked in Canada. Perhaps it’s through your volunteering ventures, you demonstrate that you can, and have, created trusting and collaborative working relationships, even if it’s unpaid.
Susan Denommee & Susan Liu Woronko
Employment Services Team
DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society