10 pointers to help you fit in at work

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Your first day at work can be scary, more so if it’s in a new country. As a newcomer, you will have to adjust to many new things. Not only will you need to figure out if there are changes as to how your job is done in this new environment, but you will also have to learn how to interact effectively with co-workers (and clients) and fulfill your boss’s expectations. You may feel out of place at first, but the process of assimilating will become easier with time. Observing some norms that are common in most Canadian workplaces can be helpful for you. It will help you know what to expect and be prepared accordingly.

Here are 10 aspects of Canadian workplace culture you should be familiar with to help you out in your first few days:

  1. Punctuality

    Canadians place great emphasis in being on time. Time is money! Being late is tantamount to wasting precious company resources especially if your tardiness has an effect on your co-workers’ outputs or schedules. Also, being punctual shows that you respect the company and other people’s time. It shows that you are a person who fulfills commitments. So don’t be late!

    Coming on time means being at work 10-15 minutes ahead of the schedule. But when you could not avoid it (we can’t always be perfect!), make sure to call ahead to say that you will be late by say, 5-10 minutes. Apologize and give a valid reason for your tardiness. Do your best not to be late again.

  2. Language

    It goes without saying that you will have to know English in order to communicate well in the workplace. As it is your second language, you will have to learn and get used to how your co-workers speak: how they pronounce words, the intonation or speed, as well as the idioms they use in order to fully understand them. This may be hard at times, but you will get used to it (read 10 easy ways to improve your English to hasten this process). The key is continuous learning – practice makes perfect!

    • Interpersonal communication
      You will quickly notice how polite and diplomatic most Canadians are when you speak to them. They also tend to state things indirectly. Many will greet you with a form of “how are you?” to start a conversation and it would be polite to say “I’m good, thank you” (you can ask them how they are as well). In a conversation, remember to have good eye contact and to listen intently to the other person when they speak. It is alright to ask them to repeat what they said if you did not understand the first time. Just remember to ask politely. Always say “please” and “thank you” when appropriate to show genuine appreciation and your good manners.
    • At meetings

      Everyone is expected to listen and contribute at meetings. It would be helpful to bring a note pad to take note of important points; this also shows that you are engaged and listening. Let your voice be heard at meetings, even just to ask questions (make sure that they are relevant). Share your ideas and don’t be scared. If you disagree with any point raised, do so with tact and diplomacy. Respect the person talking, do not interrupt. Wait for your turn to speak. It would be good to put your phone on silent mode if you need to bring it to the meeting.

    • Professional jargon
      As you become immersed in your work, there will be terms that will be often used (spoken and written) that are specific to your field or your company. It would be good to be familiar with them and use them whenever appropriate.
  3. Body language

    In many cultures, maintaining eye contact is a no-no, especially when speaking to your boss or someone more senior. In Canada, not looking at a person in the eye makes them think that you have something to hide or that you have a shifty character. Especially when meeting people for the first time, it is considered polite to shake their hand firmly while making eye contact (don’t stare though, that will be creepy). This shows mutual respect. As much as possible, don’t cross your arms across your chest when speaking to someone. It might be interpreted as being standoffish or reserved, while fidgeting and slouching gives the impression that you are bored. Most of all, don’t forget to smile! This is the best way to show that you are open and approachable.

  4. Small talk

    Before starting the work day or during breaks, Canadians like to chat or indulge in small talk (or water cooler talk). They talk about the weather, current events, sports, or any other topic for light conversation. They may exchange pleasantries over a cup of coffee or while getting ready for work. It would be good to listen and chime in whenever appropriate to show that you are interested in what they are talking about. If you are not familiar with the topic, you can still listen and ask questions and make a mental note to learn something about it so that you’ll have something to say the next time. For these short conversations, remember to stay away from topics that are too personal (like finances, salary, or married/love life), or subjects like religion, politics, race, or sex. More importantly, don’t gossip or complain, especially about the boss. Get more tips here: 5 big ideas for better small talk.

  5. Personal space

    Generally, people are comfortable with having at least two feet of space (or an arm’s length) around them. When you are talking to someone, it would be wise to observe this distance. However, there may be colleagues who like being close when they talk to you, or who are less strict about personal space. Adjust accordingly by observing the body language of the person you are interacting with.

    Decorum and orderliness are expected in all workplaces. Sudden outbursts, shouting, or talking loudly disturbs your co-workers and should be avoided.

  6. Hierarchy

    In an egalitarian society, status is not a priority. Respect is afforded to everyone equally in the workplace. Do not be shocked to hear co-workers addressing bosses by their first names and bosses conversing with staff in a collegial manner. In the Canadian workplace, hierarchy is not pronounced; there are levels for sure, but you are not expected to wait on your boss hand and foot. When meeting people for the first time though (both in the workplace or outside), it will be safe to address them with a Mr., Ms. or professional titles like Dr. or Professor, until they ask to be addressed differently. Don’t use “ma’am”, “sir”, or “madam” to address someone in English (unless you are speaking in French and mean “Madame”). These salutations are too formal and are hardly used in the workplace.

  7. Individualistic culture

    You have to make a mark as an individual player in the workplace, but you are also expected to contribute to the team. This means that you should be willing to pitch in whenever needed and go beyond your job description. Flexibility, openness to change, and a positive attitude are traits that are welcome at any workplace. Also, don’t expect your boss to constantly tell you what to do. Learn to work independently, with minimum supervision.

  8. Initiative and accountability

    Be proactive in the workplace. Do and think of ways that will make your work and your workplace better and more efficient. Don’t wait to be told what to do. Don’t ask to do something that is part of your job anyway. Always meet your deadlines, this is a serious commitment. Learn to under promise and over deliver. Think of the good of the company and the welfare of the clients you serve; that is how you will make your job meaningful.

  9. Dress code

    Depending on the industry that you are in, dress code ranges from informal to casual in most offices. You will never go wrong by dressing simply and neatly (and don’t forget to dress appropriately for the weather!). However, if you work for a bank or law office, you may be expected to wear more formal business attires. Ask the HR if this is not clear to you. Also, take note if your workplace imposes a “scent-free environment” policy which means that no one is allowed to wear perfume or heavily scented products in deference to those who have environmental sensitivities or allergies.

  10. Safety

    We all value a safe and clean work environment. You are expected to keep your work area orderly and uncluttered, and help out in maintaining the general cleanliness of the workplace. Pay attention to safety rules and regulations. Everyone takes this seriously especially if you work in a high-risk work place or area (e.g. construction site or laboratory). Safety and emergency protocols are usually established in workplaces, make it a point to be familiar with them.

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Community Resources

Read Soft skills: the key to getting and staying employed.

Learn about the 9 Soft Skills No Immigrant Should be Without by Nick Noorani, at the Prepare for Canada site.

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