Understanding workplace culture: 5 keys to success in the Canadian workplace

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You’ve bagged the job. Congratulations! The next step is figuring out how to be successful in your new workplace. Understanding Canadian workplace culture is one of the keys to your success.

Workplace culture is “the unique style in which members of an organization communicate, behave and interact. Canadian workplace culture (in particular), is influenced by the underlying beliefs and values of a larger national culture.” (The Great Canadian Workplace: Build your way to success, World Education Services). This means that workplaces are fueled by the same values that most Canadians believe. These include:

  • Individualism – Individual contribution is valued even when employees are expected to work in teams. They are expected to know their responsibilities, be proactive about their work, and fulfill their duties.
  • Equality – Every person is important in the organization. Each of our contributions count. Respect towards others should always be top of mind.
  • Informality – Hierarchy is not pronounced in Canadian workplaces. You are expected to have a collegial relationship with your managers and co-workers. However, casual attitude should not be a gateway to disrespect.
  • Punctuality – You are expected to show respect for other people’s time. You should get to work or to appointments early.

These values and beliefs underlie company policies, expectant norms and unspoken rules. By understanding them, you will also know how to deal with people in the organization, understand how decisions are made and how things get done. To help you further, let’s check how these values are displayed in the five major areas of workplace culture where you need to be effective:

  1. Communication

    The language you use and the manner you communicate are the first and most essential parts of fitting in. People explain what they think and believe through their words. This is why communicating effectively will help you fit in. These involve:

    • English language proficiency. The first and most crucial part of working in Canada is knowing enough English to be able to do the job and to effectively communicate to internal and external clients. The more proficient you are, the better you will be at your work.
    • Professional communication and etiquette. This includes knowing the local language or jargon (specific terms used in your field or occupation), body language (listening actively, maintaining eye contact), speaking clearly, and using respectful language. This also includes following communication protocol, which includes rules in email communication to handling sensitive or confidential information.
    • Going beyond the basics – Effective communication in the Canadian workplace involves learning to navigate the delicate balance between being straightforward and being diplomatic. Consider the following:
      • Canadians use indirect communication. Most managers will not tell you how to do your job. They will suggest something if they see that your work needs improvement.
      • Decoding the “feedback sandwich” is an essential skill. A feedback sandwich is criticism that is given in between two positive statements. For example, if your boss did not like your report (or thought that it was too long), you may hear: “Thanks for submitting the report on time. I suggest you re-visit pages 5 to 20 because I think the content can be improved. But overall, it was comprehensive.” Read 5 steps to giving constructive feedback at work that really helps to learn feedback techniques.
      • You should speak up if it concerns the area of your expertise. If you know a better way of doing things, suggest it even if you are going against your boss. You are expected to provide solutions and solve problems. Always remember to do it tactfully.
      • You are expected to speak up immediately if you have concerns, suggestions or questions. You can refuse a job as long as you have a valid reason (for example, if it is unsafe).
      • Learn cross-cultural communication. It is important to be aware of cultural differences in multicultural workplaces. This requires empathy, patience and tolerance. Never assume or judge.

  2. Expectations in the Canadian Workplace, Simon Fraser University Co-operative Education

  3. Image

    Be known as a team player and a competent employee. Note that in the Canadian workplace, being easy to work with is valued just as much as being competent in your job. Your technical skills may be exceptional but if you have a negative attitude, nobody will want you in their team.

    Confidence is equated with leadership. You may doubt yourself when you are just starting, but play to your talents and strengths. Have a healthy amount of self-esteem and know your value. Self-promotion is normal and expected in the workplace because you can’t expect your boss to know your achievements automatically. A good strategy is to find out the accepted ways to let others know about your achievements in the organization. It’s also important that you don’t come off as arrogant.

    Newcomer tip: Be yourself and always be genuine in your dealings with others. If you don’t like talking about yourself or your accomplishments, a good way to go around this is to share your successes. For example, if you successfully launched a project, celebrate this with your team. In this way, you are able to share the spotlight with others and not place focus only on yourself and your contributions.

  4. Diplomacy

    It is a priority to put the feelings of others first. This is why diplomacy and tact are required when dealing with your co-workers. This permeates all areas of work and relationship-building. Being harsh or aggressive is looked down upon, so always talk and act kindly.

    Avoid conflict in the workplace. Don’t be reactive – always pause and think before you say something you may regret later. It will reflect badly on you if you blame others. Someone’s mistake is not a plus point for you. You are working in a team so it’s a shared accountability.

    Newcomer tip: If someone does not treat you right in the workplace, don’t jump to conclusions right away. Pause and think. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Speak to the other person calmly to iron things out. Try to understand others.

  5. Work ethics

    Don’t rely only on image. The only way to build credibility at work is to do your job well and exceed expectations. Be reliable – do what you say you will. The best way to do this is to plan, organize and prioritize. This will enable you to manage your time.

    Aim for a balanced work and home/personal life. Make time for self-care. Learn when to say no to additional duties. This builds mutual respect in the workplace as well. Don’t sacrifice health and relationships for your career.

    Newcomer tip: Discuss job expectations with your manager to know your work priorities. Be very clear about your role and how you should deliver your responsibilities. Don’t assume that just because it is the way you have done it in your home country, it should be the way it should be done here.

  6. Relationship-building

    Build a strong rapport with your supervisors, colleagues and customers. Relationships are built through genuine service, honesty and respect. Always know the boundaries between professional and personal relationships, and don’t cross that line.

    Understand collaboration and synergy. It is said that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” which means that a group’s collective effort produces results that are greater than each individual contribution. This is the beauty of teamwork.

    Newcomer Tip: Participate in team-building activities and be open to socializing with your co-workers when you can (for example, during breaks or at lunch). It’s a great way to learn more about Canadian culture and develop your sense of belonging.

Remember that adapting does not happen instantaneously. It’s a process. You’ll have hits and misses that’s why it’s important to be humble and learn from your mistakes. Everyone, newcomer or not, has to go through an adjustment process at work. Be patient and supportive to others as well.

Another important thing is to be kind to yourself. We have the tendency to be more strict with ourselves compared to those around us. Remember that you are not only adapting to new ways but also unlearning old ways that have been ingrained in you for years. Stay positive and do the best that you can. Sooner or later, you’ll succeed!
Article updated February 21, 2023.
Sources: Working in the Canadian workplace (Handbook), Paul A. Holmes; WIN Newcomer’s Guide to the Canadian Workplace (A resource for newcomers, EAL teachers and industry), Kristle Calisto-Tavares; Canadian Workplace Success, Durham College SALS; and The Great Canadian Workplace: Build your way to success (webinar), World Education Services. Retrieved May 28, 2019.

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Community Resources

Learn about Canadian workplace values here: Canadian Workplace Values, from You’re Hired…Now What? By Lynda Goldstein.

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