Imagine you have just landed in a country where you will be working and living for the first time…

Everything is new and strange. People don’t respond the way you expect them to and the environment, food and even the smells around you are completely unfamiliar. When you come to the workplace for the first time, if you already speak English, you don’t understand the accents of your co-workers. If English is new to you, the confusion and culture shock of having to learn a language before figuring out your job feels totally overwhelming.

When you come to a new country, in both your daily life and your workplace, tasks you are used to performing back home without even thinking about them now take huge effort. You don’t know how to greet your colleagues because when you provide your usual greeting people look at you strangely, so you stop greeting them at all. You aren’t sure where to put your stuff, the bathrooms are unfamiliar, and you don’t understand the coffee break and lunch norms.

Not wanting to look too “green,” you just smile and nod as much as possible. When your boss asks you if you understand you say, “Yes,” even though you don’t know what he actually wants you to do. (Note to self: never ask, “Do you understand?” because the answer, whether it is true or not is always, “Yes.”)

Sad – but true – stories

Consider what Manuel shared with me regarding his experience with getting to work at his new job at a hotel in Edmonton. For the longest time he walked the three-kilometer distance to his workplace instead of taking the bus because he was afraid of “looking like a foreigner” when he didn’t know how to use the fare machine. His fear of losing face in his new country was so strong that for two months he left an hour early for work and walked there and back in the cold rather than face the embarrassment of asking the bus driver for help and admitting that he did not know what to do.

What makes it even harder for newcomers is that workplace protocols, formalities, communication styles and conflict resolution methods are different from what they expect, and all this confusion can result in some embarrassing situations. For example in one food processing plant, a lead hand whose wife was working in another part of the plant heard others saying that there had been some discipline issues on his wife’s team.

On his break, the lead hand decided to go to his wife’s line and yell at her while she worked to make sure she knew that she should not cause any problems. He was very surprised when his wife’s lead hand told him it was not his place to discipline his wife at work. He was even more surprised when he received a written warning from the HR department. In El Salvador at his past workplace, his behavior would have been considered perfectly appropriate. Here, he and his wife became the butt of a number of jokes after this incident and the loss of face was significant.

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French immigrant Jean-Louis explained to me that in France there is a much sharper and more clearly defined hierarchy than in Canada. He was suspicious when his boss asked him how his family was doing and if his wife was adjusting well to Canada. He had never experienced this kind of informal interest from any of his bosses in France. Getting compliments from his boss was equally surprising, even unnerving. Thinking back on it now, he thinks that his managers probably thought he was rude and unfriendly. Now he is used to the familiarity of Canadian workplaces, but it took him a couple of years before it felt comfortable.

Take time to reflect

Helping both foreign workers and immigrant workers adjust to their new work environments can be easier if you imagine yourself performing a job in their country. Ask yourself these basic questions:

  • What would you need to know to be able to do your job well?
  • How would you want to have things explained, when and by whom?

Even between different cultural groups who have been born in Canada, managers may need to spell out their intent and the meaning of their behavior in order to get to the results they seek. For example, a Métis teacher once told me that she had learned to explain to her class each year how to know when she was displeased or angry. Since she never yelled and was very gentle in her approach, many of the students couldn’t interpret her face and mannerisms. She demonstrated to them what to look for in her face and voice, so they knew what to look for. She then explained the consequences for for both good behavior and behavior infractions.

Once she realized how successful it was to approach classroom management in this manner, she started explaining other aspects of her culture to students so they could understand her values and reasons for her organizational structure. She would often tell her students that in her culture the youngest and least experienced always let the older and more experienced speak first out of respect, then she asked if students in the room had similar expectations in their cultures.

She also told them that silence after a comment was a sign that she was taking their comment very seriously and thinking about it. She began promoting the use of a minute of silence when there was a conflict, so that her well-developed skill of reflection on potential consequences before jumping to action, could be cultivated by her students.

Managers of teams, lines, sections and companies can do the same thing for their employees.

A little self-reflection is required and it takes some thinking to be able to articulately explain “how we do things around here,” but you may be surprised at how much the entire team appreciates the clarification. Your newcomer workers will feel more secure in their new positions because your capacity to trouble-shoot potential issues and resolve intercultural conflicts will serve everyone.

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