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. You’ll need to adjust to many new things.

You’ll need to figure out how your job is done in this new environment, learn how to interact effectively with co-workers (and clients), and of course strive to meet 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 will be helpful for you. 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! Tardiness wastes company resources especially if it affects your co-workers’ outputs or schedules. Being punctual also shows that you respect the company and other people’s time. So don’t be late!

    Coming on time means being at work 10-15 minutes ahead of the schedule. Make sure to call ahead to say that you will be late if you can’t avoid it. Apologize and provide a valid reason. Do your best not to be late again.

    Do you want to understand why being punctual is important in Canada? Read What’s the big deal about being on time? Why do you need to be punctual in Canada?

  3. Language

    It goes without saying that you will have to know English in order to communicate well in the workplace. Hone your communication skills and get used to how your co-workers speak. Observe 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
      Canadians are polite and personable. Many will greet you with a form of “how are you?” to start a conversation. It would be polite to answer “I’m good, thank you” (and ask them how they are as well). Remember to maintain good eye contact during a conversation. Listen to the other person when they speak. On occasions when you don’t understand what they’re saying, it is alright to ask them to repeat what they’ve said. Ask politely and thank them for obliging.
    • At meetings

      Everyone is expected to listen and contribute at meetings. Writing down notes can show that you are engaged and listening but it’s important to let your voice be heard. Don’t be scared to ask questions and share your opinions. If you disagree with any point raised, do so with tact and diplomacy. Wait for your turn to speak and do not interrupt when others are talking (unless it is warranted and you do so politely). Don’t forget to set 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 that are specific to your field or your company. It would be good to be familiar with them and use them whenever appropriate.
  4. 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. It will help to observe and learn other visual cues that will help you better communicate in the workplace. Other examples include: shaking hands when meeting people for the first time (but not during the pandemic), not crossing your arms across your chest or fidgeting and slouching when speaking to someone.

  5. Small talk

    Before starting the work day or during breaks, Canadians like to chat or indulge in small talk (or water cooler talk). Topics are usually the weather, current events, or sports. It is acceptable to 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. Stay away from topics that are too personal (like finances, salary, or married/love life), or subjects like religion, politics, race, or sex when making small talk. Get more tips here: 5 big ideas for better small talk.

  6. Personal space

    In normal times, people are comfortable with having at least two feet of space (or an arm’s length) around them (when physically distancing during the pandemic, the recommended distance is six feet. Also, wear a mask). Observe this distance When you are talking to someone. You may have 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.

  7. 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 people mostly treat each other as equals. When meeting people for the first time (both in the workplace or outside), it will be safe to address them with a Mr., Ms.(or their preferred pronouns) 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.

  8. 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 and with minimum supervision.

  9. Initiative and accountability

    Be proactive in the workplace. Think of ways that will make your work and your workplace better and more efficient. Don’t wait to be told what to do. Always meet your deadlines and learn to under promise and over deliver. Think of the good of the company and the welfare of the clients you serve – that’s how you will make your job meaningful.

  10. Dress code

    Dress code ranges from informal to casual in most offices and would depend on the industry that you are in. You won’t go wrong by dressing simply, neatly and most of all, appropriately for the weather. However, if you work for a bank or law office, you may be expected to wear more formal attire. Ask the HR about the dress code if it is not clear to you. Also take note if your workplace has a “scent-free environment” policy. This means that perfumes or heavily scented products are not allowed in deference to those who have environmental sensitivities or allergies.

  11. Safety

    We all value a safe and clean work environment. In fact, it’s your right. It’s important to know and follow safety and emergency protocols especially if your workplace is a high-risk area (e.g. construction site or laboratory). At the minimum, keep your work area orderly to help maintain the general cleanliness.

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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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10 pointers to help you fit in at work

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