August 15, 1993, was to have been the luckiest day in my life. I landed in Montreal, Canada, as a permanent resident with a job already lined up! Fluent in French and with a degree from a North American university, I was hired as a management trainee in a major Canadian institution. Unlike most new immigrants to Canada, the obstacles of language, foreign qualifications and Canadian work experience were not standing in my way. As you can see from my first professional photograph, my big, long hair framed a bright-eyed, smiling face that was filled with optimism.
Six months later, I was telling a different story.
I was struggling in an unhappy work environment with colleagues who were unhelpful and insensitive to my efforts to ‘fit in.’ And it was nobody’s fault.
I came from a hierarchical, formal workplace culture in the Jamaican public sector where ”junior officers” were expected to learn by listening attentively and taking notes in meetings with their “seniors.” Meritocracy, the quality of written reports and giving the right information when it was asked for, put you on the path to promotion and success. In Canada, I didn’t understand that it was okay and expected of trainees to speak up, participate and ask challenging questions in meetings with clients. The feedback I got from my politically correct Canadian colleagues was that they viewed me as shy. A few others bluntly questioned my level of interest and enthusiasm for the job. This all came as a surprise. Far from being shy, I have always been passionate about my work.
Caught in a mire of cultural misunderstanding, my experience was a source of bewilderment for both me and my employer. According to a 2012 report by the Progress Career Planning Institute, the challenge persists to this day. Workplace acculturation – the adoption of behaviours that are in harmony with the corporate culture – is a major hurdle for professional immigrants when trying to establish a career.
There is tremendous focus on attracting immigrant employees, language learning, cultural educational programs, fast-tracking foreign students’ permanent resident applications and, most importantly, guiding immigrants through the job search process. But once the job offer is accepted, it must not be assumed that all is well.
‘Diversity’ is a politically correct buzzword
During my job search prior to migrating to Canada, virtually every organization listed diversity among its corporate values. Job postings and brochures had standard statements announcing the organization’s commitment to diversity, surrounded by photos of groups of smiling multi-ethnic employees. There was no mention of workplace acculturation programs in recruitment materials and I didn’t feel the need to ask.
Now that workplace diversity is commonplace, diversity statistics may provide a breakdown of various groups within the employee population, but the experience of employees, whether reported or observed, can tell a different story.
Focus on workplace integration – for all employees
Rather than focusing primarily on hiring a diverse workforce, Canadian employers should take specific steps towards creating an integrated workforce – a place where everyone feels that they “fit in.” When my colleagues joked that I was “different,” I didn’t quite understand what that meant. It left me wondering quite often whether being different was a good or bad thing, and if I was fitting in.
Every employer wants a good fit between new employees and company culture. This can be complicated when the new employee is an immigrant; and yet, how well current employees integrate with new immigrants is equally important. There is a case to be made for new immigrants and their Canadian colleagues to participate in workplace acculturation programs.
Based on my own work and integration experience, I would have the following recommendations for employers of new immigrants:
- Avoid setting up programs designed specifically for ethnic groups, as this may lead to the creation of silos and a source of resentment for other employees.
- Provide immediate peer support and allow for an adjustment period to allow new immigrant employees and their Canadian colleagues to work on integration.
- Guide new immigrants towards social media networks and professional groups and encourage participation in the organization’s social events.
- Stop giving and accepting “cultural differences” as an easy excuse for poor integration. Provide cross-cultural workshops and forums for open communication and conflict resolution.
- Give new immigrants opportunities to apply their foreign experience: it may provide the organization with new ways of doing business, and even provide a competitive advantage.
- Build mentorship programs for new immigrants, especially those in leadership positions and who are people managers, to ensure that cultural differences do not affect team-building and performance evaluation.
In my case, I was fortunate to meet several business contacts early on, and they introduced me to professional networks and associations. It was through interacting with a good mix of foreign-born and Canadian colleagues that I learned more about the Canadian business environment, expanded my network and progressed in my career. While I may still seem “different” at times, I work effectively with my Canadian co-workers, and they value my contribution and international experience.
Immigrants are here to stay…and more are coming
The Conference Board of Canada says Canada will have to rely on immigration to fill gaps in a workforce depleted by slow growth and an aging population. Statistics Canada predicts nearly half of Canada’s population will be immigrants, or children of immigrants, in less than 20 years from now. In other words, the need for workplace acculturation programs is not going away.
Camille Isaacs-Morell came to Canada nearly 24 years ago from Jamaica and the USA where she gained extensive experience working with persons of various ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. She is a marketing professional and volunteer, passionately committed to making an impactful contribution to the creation of a truly integrated global village, where everyone has a fair chance to be successful.
See the BIG picture. Focus on what’s important.