Let me tell you a story…

An employment counsellor told me about a client – an immigrant who had come to Canada as a refugee – who quit and immediately walked away from a very good job on a Friday. The client said he was offended by the three month review he had just undergone. He quit to save face and seemed to expect he would be invited back by the employer. Instead the employer said she would give the man a second chance, but only if he was contrite…after all, walking off the job had disturbed the production line.

The man did not understand what the word “contrite” meant, and when he found out he became really angry. After all, what did he have to be remorseful or apologetic about? In his mind it was the boss who should have been contrite. She was the one who was questioning the value of his work and his ability to do his job.

So, in your mind, what should be done? How can we tease apart what is a lack of understanding about the Canadian workplace, what is a consequence of the client’s history as a refugee, what may just be a personality that has difficulty remaining calm, and what may have been miscommunication on the part of the employer, and what is just simply unrealistic expectations? And then how can we ensure this client can have a start building a career in Canada?


Culture is about the norms and expectations established in a group over time. Everyone has cultural expectations about work and when they change countries, or even regions, provinces or cities, the culture in their new group will be different, so there will likely be several unmet expectations that can leave people feeling confused and frustrated as they struggle to understand the dynamics of their new situation.

One of the best ways to mitigate cultural differences is to understand that everyone – yes, everyone – has a culture. Being able to say what is “normal” to you in a work environment is a way of stating your expectations about what “should” be happening on the job.

Once you know what your ideas about how work “should” work, it’s time to get curious. What is the same about where you work now and where you have worked in the past? What isn’t? Why might that be? What parts of this workplace culture seem to be working for others? Which don’t? And why might that be?

Asking questions with a genuine intent to learn, not to judge (read more about this in The need to be right versus the need to know), will provide you with the context you need to better understand why things look the way they do in your new environment. You still may disagree and prefer something different, but at least you will have considered a different idea and gained more understanding in the process.


It is said that roughly 50% of our personality is fixed – we’re born with it. That’s our temperament and it rarely changes, though we can train it to some extent. The other half of our personality is gained through experiences, education and efforts. It’s entirely constructed and can be deconstructed and rebuilt as much as we would like it to be, provided we’re willing to do the work that it takes to make the changes we would like to see in ourselves (read more about how to change your habits here).


When someone has been in a war-torn country, lived in a refugee camp or undergone a traumatic experience, they have been conditioned to fight or flee. In some cases people’s identity has become linked to the fight or the flight response and their ability to navigate “survival” challenges. Because their stress reaction will be triggered in a new environment that they perceive as threatening, their automatic response will be to use the coping strategies that they have used in the past because those may have been what kept them alive.

I want to stress the word “automatic” here. Our brains function somewhat like computers…when I open my internet browser it immediately shows me several of my most visited sites. These shortcuts help me to get where I am used to going quickly. In just a few clicks that take no longer than 3 seconds total, I can have several windows open and be entirely ready for my work day.

Brains work in a similar way, but they are far more efficient than any computer – they work at a hypersonic speed when they do what they are used to doing, to the point that we do not need to think in order to act. It would be as though every time I simply noticed my computer, it would immediately turn itself on, open my internet browser, and all the sites I needed without me even recognizing that it was happening. That fast. That automatic.

When we notice reactions from others that seem immediate and extreme, there is a good chance that we are seeing those “automatic” pathways at work. And we can also know that there is likely a reason these pathways needed to form in order to help this person cope with past environments or people that they perceived as threatening. Their reaction may have less to do with them (or us) than we may first think.

Workplace expectations

When it comes to expectations there is a dizzying amount of space available for miscommunication and misunderstanding. People can:

  • Not understand certain aspects of the job, or what is required to do the job well

  • Lack the onsite resources they need to complete their work

  • Dismiss the importance of building a network of support in the workplace, or be dissuaded from doing so

  • Get confused about navigating hierarchies and power dynamics in the workplace

  • Find themselves lost in the language – not just the general language, but the company-specific jargon used

  • Get confused about how they are being evaluated and compensated

  • Be exposed to ineffective training that leaves more questions than answers

  • Receive mixed messages about what is required of them, who their team is, or who they can go to for support

  • Not know enough to ask questions, and remain silent even though they don’t understand

  • Be expected to take on more than what has been formally outlined

Of course, these are just a few places that workplace expectations can cause problems.

Turning back to the original story, either the employment counsellor or the employer could have offered some simple instruction…something like, “This is how it works in Canada. Everyone, no matter who they are, goes through a three month period where they could be dismissed at any time and the employer does not have to say why. What was it like where you came from?” Starting a curious (not judgmental) conversation can be the most important way to start communicating and aligning expectations.

3 ways to help: Ways to help

#1. Ensure you are heard – and avoid information-dumping

Here it’s important to remember that Canada is an information-based culture. We like facts, figures, lists, and data and we can get more caught up in what a person can do and accomplish than in what that person’s values and ethics may be. Most other cultures are relationship-based – they need to know who the people are first, and what their achievements are second (or even third).

So, until a newcomer has a sense of who you are, they are likely going to have a difficult time absorbing anything of what you tell them to do until that need is met. Building a relationship with you will be their higher priority and then, once they feel they have a sense of who you are as a person, they will be better able to learn from you.

That said, it’s important to try and learn more about your employees. Ask questions like:

  • “In your country, how do you know that you have done a good job?”

  • “How are work mistakes corrected in your country?”

  • “What would be small mistake or a big mistake in your country?”

  • “In your country how would you make friends at work?”

  • “How formal is the work culture in your country? Would an ordinary employee ever talk directly to a boss?”

By taking a sincere interest in another’s experience, you help them to like and trust you.

#2. Help information “stick”

Take a second to Imagine going to work in Afghanistan or Malaysia. If you were presented with a list of things to do, but you had never done them before or seen some of the equipment you were supposed to be using before, do you think you would be able to complete that list effectively? Would you remember how you were to work through that list even if someone had walked you through it once or twice? My guess is that you probably would remember some parts, but most would be muddled.

That’s how newcomers feel. They have the list, but it’s a new list with new tools, and they don’t always have a past experience to link these new processes to. And this can feel threatening. Everyone wants to feel that they are good and competent – it’s that “ego” side or our inborn personalities – and when presented with situations where we see our “goodness” or “competence” being compromised, it’s natural to become defensive.

Understanding that, it’s important to design your onboarding process with the kind of training that will give your new hires a base to link their new knowledge to. They will also need a group of people they know, like, and trust to come to with questions and problems. Mentor or buddy programs can be very effective, as are processes documented by photos or videos that allow the person watching to see (not just hear) what it is they need to do.

#3. Check in

Holding regular meetings with new staff (and existing staff) is an important way to monitor their progress in their work and provide them with a formal opportunity to ask questions, celebrate successes, and voice concerns.

Had the employer from the story been meeting more regularly with the new employee, a three month evaluation may have felt much less threatening, and it’s arrival would not have come as such a shock. Checking in regularly with all staff, but especially new hires, is key in both building relationships but also achieving organizational outcomes (check out how you can use meetings to make your employee talent visible here).

Closing thoughts

Dealing with people will always be one of the most complex things any of us ever do. There are so many factors that drive behaviour. So many reasons why people say the things they say and do the things they do. And so many effects that those behaviours have on us and others.

In the workplace (and arguably everywhere else), it’s important to recognize this complexity and suspend judgment in favour of curiosity. This article outlined 3 simple things managers can do to help their teams:

  1. Ensure you are heard – and avoid information-dumping

  2. Help information “stick”

  3. Check in

Which of these strategies can you start implementing today so that your employees can better understand your expectations, you can better understand theirs, and so that you can build a relationship that honours both the work and the people doing it?

Ready to resolve intercultural conflict better?

Check out our FREE online courseWork and Culture” and get introduced to cultural concepts for success in the Canadian workplace.

About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees.

Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: marie@shiftworkplace.com or 780-454-5661