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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.

www.camilleisaacsmorell.com

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This article was published in Your Workplace magazine, Volume 15 Issue 5 www.yourworkplace.ca

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The general consensus in Canada is that immigration benefits the economy and is good for business.  Study after study concludes that new Canadians can help businesses tap into new local and international markets and enhance creativity, productivity, and decision-making through diverse approaches.  The Conference Board of Canada, in its Report Immigrants as Innovators: Boosting Canada’s Global Competitiveness, states that immigrants are a “source of diverse knowledge and experience that can increase innovation in Canadian businesses.” [1]

However, there is evidence that suggests that much more work needs to be done to optimise the often-cited benefits that new Canadians bring to the country.

  • In a publicly funded study undertaken by the Progress Career Planning Institute (PCPI),[2]  internationally educated professionals identified several hurdles to establishing a career, including workplace acculturation, disparity in wages, underemployment, lower levels of job satisfaction and security, lack of networks and undervaluation of qualifications.
  • The CIBC Focus Report “Long-Term Immigration Approach Needed To Maximize Newcomers’ Employability” estimates that the current employment and wage gaps between new immigrants and native-born Canadians cost the economy slightly more than $20-billion in forgone earnings.[3]
  • In its report, How Canada Performs, The Conference Board of Canada recommends that in order to ensure strong employment growth for the future, annual immigration levels should be increased, the process for immigrant selection and processing should be improved and foreign credentials recognition should be reformed. [4]

But beyond these general recommendations, there is a much larger issue to be addressed.  It is the effective integration of new Canadians in the workplace in ways that are beneficial to their Canadian-born colleagues, the organizations in which they work and the Canadian economy.  This issue must be identified, understood and appropriately addressed.  Frequently cited challenges include managing resistance to change, finding appropriate tools to support integration and eliminating communication barriers.

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[1] The Conference Board of Canada Immigrants as Innovators Boosting Canada’s Global Competitiveness, October 2012.  Available at http://www.conferenceboard.ca/e-library/abstract.aspx?did=3825

[2] Progress Career Planning Institute study: Progress: IEPs’ Experience Matters, February 2012  Available at http://www.iep.ca/proceedings.htm

[3] CIBC Focus Report:  Long-Term Immigration Approach Needed To Maximize Newcomers’ Employability, August 13, 2012. Available at http://business.financialpost.com/2012/07/24/immigrants-face-steep-climb-to-success/

[4]The Conference Board of Canada: How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada. Available at http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/economy/employment-growth.aspx

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Canadian employers are facing increasingly complex human resource issues and challenges. These challenges adversely impact organizational health and productivity, which are important determinants of business success. By providing employee benefit plans, employers expect to achieve high standards of organizational health and productivity, attract and retain talented staff and maintain high levels of employee engagement. Go to any conference on employee benefits and read articles on workplace wellness, and you will see that there is ample evidence that organizations are struggling to find the ideal mix of benefits to meet the needs of their workforce and that positively impacts health and productivity.

Business leaders increasingly express the need for strategic advice and actionable solutions to these challenges without adversely impacting the financial health of their organization. Unfortunately, the need to contain costs associated with higher insurance premiums resulting from increased claims, very often drives the final decision on the range of services covered in the plan. Employers also want to see proof that there is a return on investment from ancillary services such as health and wellness / prevention and employee assistance programmes (EAPs).

A holistic approach For benefits plans to be successful, a holistic approach involving the collaboration of all service providers is likely to lead to the desired outcome of a healthy, productive workforce that supports business success. Employers, when shopping the market for benefits plans, should mandate their benefits advisors to firstly uncover the underlying reasons for higher claims that lead to increased premiums. This assessment should involve an analysis of the claims experience, the state of organizational health and wellness and patterns of absenteeism and trends that lead to short- and long-term disability. Instead of asking insurers to present a set of desired services, advisors should identify and work with insurance carriers that go beyond claims payment adjudication processes and risk assessment and that offer innovative, customizable solution sets. The specialist services of EAPs, medical clinics and paramedical service providers ought to fit with the objectives of the client and insurer and work in partnership with them.

The best designed benefits plan may fail to support the employer’s objectives if employees are unaware of the services offered, and more importantly, cannot see the connection between their daily experience at work and the desired outcomes of good organizational health and productivity that the benefits plan aims to support.

This begs the question, how can employers create an obvious connection between the benefits plan and the workplace culture?

The employer, working closely with the benefits advisor and providers, should implement activities that allow employees to collectively experience the plan in the workplace on a daily basis. More specifically, this can be done through on-site programmes in which all employees participate, and by establishing policies that support prevention and cost containment. Consider:

Mandatory business practices that support behavioural changes leading to better health

  1. Mental health and stress reduction practices like creating policies on the transmission of e-mail after business hours, and
  2. Enforcing vacation requiring that employees use vacation at least once every 12 months.
  3. Physical well-being promoted through structured physical exercise programs for employees, and
  4. Improved workstation design, and
  5. Healthy and nutritious choices in cafeterias; and
  6. On-site medical assessments to identify early signs of chronic diseases.

Communications material and tools to enable employees to make better choices when selecting options and services covered by the plan

  1. Communicate how employees can take preventive actions, and
  2. Share how to better manage prescription drug costs; and
  3. Recommend the frequency of use of some services, for example, dental checks once every 12 – 14 months instead of every six months, where possible.

Employee Assistance Programme modules that can be accessed while at work

  1. Periodic on-site seminars on issues specific to the employee profile of the company, for example, wellness promotion, work-life balance, challenges faced by the sandwich generation, etc.; and
  2. Intranet portals providing on-line resources and tools that encourage employee engagement in their health and wellness.

These recommendations call for a change in perspective from viewing a benefits plans as a health care cost to perceiving it as an important tool to support a healthy, productive team. The benefits of a thriving work culture are generally seen in better bottom line results and sustainable business success. A change in perspective in benefits plans may be well worth it! What do you think?


Camille N. Isaacs-Morell is a marketing professional who has had extensive experience in the development of marketing strategies to promote employee benefits plans. She passionately believes that employee engagement and the alignment of personal and corporate values are essential to make work a gratifying and satisfying experience. Read more at www.camilleisaacsmorell.com, www.thebigpicturecamille.wordpress.com

This blog post was originally published on www.yourworkplace.ca on 24 September 2013

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