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Navigating the Canadian workplace

For a lot of international students and graduates in Canada, the thought of breaking into the Canadian job market is a daunting one.
Firstly, of course, there’s the challenge of actually getting a job. Yet even when a position’s already “in the bag” (a common Canadian term, meaning that it’s already been confirmed, or is “a sure thing”), then come the concerns over ‘fitting in’ at the new workplace. An office environment in Montreal is not the same as in Mumbai. Dhaka is as different from Delhi as it is from Toronto or Vancouver. One must understand how to adjust to the new workplace.
Concerns such as, ‘Will my new colleagues be friendly toward me?’ ‘How are Canadian employees supposed to interact with one another? Or with the bosses?’ ‘Will the work expectations be different to those in my own country?’ Or even something as simple as, ‘What am I supposed to wear?’

These are all genuine concerns. However, just as any international student who has attended a Canadian university is already likely to have found out, Canada is a country where being different is okay – celebrated, in fact, as the country prides itself on its strong diversity and multiculturalism. The workplace is no different. The main thing is that you should prepare yourself to be flexible, and perhaps first try to understand the unique traits that make Canadian work culture what it is.

So whether you’re just starting your first job hunt, or the contract’s already signed and you’re preparing yourself for week one at your new Canadian office, here are some pointers to help you along your way.

What is valued


Follow these general Canadian rules:

• Be polite (open doors for others, stand up when introduced to someone new)

• Have a positive attitude, and greet people with a smile.

• Teamwork and communication skills are also highly important to Canadian employers who value a strong mix of creativity and professionalism.

Sounds like hard work? That’s because it is!


Canadian workplace and business etiquette


In Canada, dress codes are much more relaxed than in a lot of other countries around the world. Of course it is important to gauge each situation separately (and if you’re ever unsure, just ask!), but in general: a pair of dark pants (not jeans), a neat blouse or collared shirt, and a pair of black shoes is unlikely to go wrong!

Drinking alcohol while on the job is strongly discouraged, even during lunches (other than perhaps a single drink, maybe), and smoking indoors has been widely banned across the country. Personal hygiene is also generally taken quite seriously – with some offices (and entire cities even!) publicly declaring themselves as scent-free zones, limiting allergies as well as annoyance. In other words, you might want to rethink spraying on your favourite perfume, at least until you’ve figured out the lay of your new office. And in general – if you’re ever unsure of your ‘office appearance’ (dress, make-up, hair, perfume), it might be worth asking a friendly colleague for a second opinion.


Understanding the ‘norm’


Different workplaces, like deferent countries, tend to have distinctive cultural ‘norms’ – and often, the line between what is acceptable and what is not varies greatly from job to job. For example, company policies often fluctuate on such issues as tattoos, piercings, dress codes, break-taking, personal use of office resources such as fax machines or photocopiers, personal email use or internet browsing during office hours, leeway for family obligations, etc.

So realize that even though something may not be stated outright in your contract, that doesn’t necessarily mean it ‘doesn’t matter’.

If any of these things sound like they could be a potential problem for you, you might want to enquire about them during your job interviews as every employer is different.


The working life


As the typical 9-5, five-days a-week job grows more and more scarce, employees in Canada need to brace themselves for the prospect of longer hours – and be prepared to work their way up the ladder, as an entry-level position (with entry-level pay) is where most people start out.

The average Canadian employee, in addition to standard government-issued holidays, also receives two weeks of paid vacation per year. Although it is possible to negotiate extra unpaid time-off, again, this is something you might want to consider before you sign your name on any dotted line.

In general, Canadians are known to be friendly, easygoing people – a trait largely reflected in the workplace as well.

So as long as you can learn to balance your time effectively between working hard and playing hard – while remembering that key word, flexibility – then you’re sure to fit in well.

• Arwen Kidd currently serves as Communications Diretor for the Canadian University Application Centre and its parent organization, Higher-Edge. A Canadian university graduate herself, Arwen has spent most of the past five years working and travelling over-seas. Among her credits are various documentary film and photojournalism projects in Eastern Europe and Australia, and training local journalists in West Africa. Arwen is currently based in New Delhi, India.

• More info on CUAC at www.canada123.org.


Posted: Nov 14, 2010

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