Work: The Art of Getting it Right – Workplace Ethics in Canada

by Sabine Ehgoetz

Sabine Ehgoetz currently lives in Toronto where she works as a freelance journalist, foreign correspondent, translator and fashion model. In December 2006 she celebrated her second anniversary as a Canadian resident.

"During the first few weeks at my job in Canada, I was constantly afraid that I would lose it again right away and get fired," says Asim, an IT expert from India who got hired for a Technical Support position after he moved to Canada. Today, six years later, he smiles when he thinks about his initial worries. "I wasn’t so much concerned about my skills or making mistakes with my assignments – I simply was insecure about what behaviour was expected of me at my new workplace. I often felt rude and inconsiderate." This sounds surprising coming from a person whose culture is known to be very friendly and forthcoming. Yet there are significant differences between the work ethics in modern Indian and Canadian companies. While Asim finds the dress code at his current office way more relaxed and unregulated than back in India, he sometimes still shakes his head about all those little rules that you need to follow to be perceived as polite and considerate. "In the beginning it seemed very confusing to me how often Canadians say ‘Thank you’ to each other. In India, we just nod and smile when a co-worker has done us a little favour. In Canada you have to make a lot of words about it."

Another big difference between workplace regulations in both countries is the way meetings are scheduled and held. "I wasn’t used to showing up exactly at the time a meeting was set for," admits Asim. In India, conferences and team discussions are usually not bound to a strict timeframe. The start often gets delayed and generally there is no prearranged ending time, which is why the North American way of back-to-back conferences wouldn’t even be possible. Also, East Indians tend to emphasize a lot more small talk and exchange of personal information before they get to business. Rarely would someone just dive right into the subject of a meeting without talking first about general and often not even work-related topics. Real decisions are mostly made by the managers behind closed doors anyways, long after they have been discussed by a group. No wonder that workers from the East find it hard to adapt to the Canadian culture of PowerPoint presentations or to follow procedures defined by bullet points on a handout.

Interestingly enough, Manuela, a Sales Representative who originally comes from Germany, has a completely different opinion on the matter. "Back home we never spent so much time just chatting about a subject without coming to any conclusion." Whenever she wants to send a quick email she has to remind herself to include standard conversational terms, like beginning the text with "How are you", maybe a question about the recipients’ weekend or wishing them a great day before ending with "sincerely", "best regards" or at least thanking them in advance for anything that may have been asked for in the body of the email. In Germany, especially electronic communication tends to be a lot less formal and without any flowery phrases. One thing becomes quickly obvious when you ask newcomers from other countries about their experiences at their offices here – workplace ethics in a particular country are never absolute, but always relative to where you are coming from.

This is something one should keep in mind, especially in Canada’s multicultural work environment, where it is necessary to develop an understanding for behavioural patterns and sensitivity of workers with very different ethnic backgrounds. Of course this still means that each of them has to eventually learn how to follow his/her company’s rules and the specific standards set by the management. Skilled workers from Japan, for example, may be used to many more rules and procedures at their workplace, but have a hard time fulfilling the expectations set for them. Not because they aren’t qualified enough (often, on the contrary) but simply because they are not used to taking initiative, making suggestions for improvement or criticizing existing structures. Cara, a Canadian Development Officer for employment programs, who used to work in Japan as a Communication Specialist, knows why: "In Japan, when (or if) I presented my own ideas or suggested changes to my superior, they were often ignored. The only autonomy I had was defined by the structure of prescribed expectations within the organization." Most Canadian companies that thrive on competitiveness, independence and individuality present a challenge to the Japanese belief that hierarchy and authority must be retained under all circumstances.

To Europeans like Manuela, this seems almost impossible. She remembers what she considers her biggest faux-pas so far during her employment at an otherwise rather modern and laid back advertising agency – being bothered by the bone-chilling air conditioning, she sent out a group-mail to all the other workers on the floor asking whether they also would prefer to have it turned down a little and offering to inform the responsible person. Two hours later, her manager showed up at her desk to tell her that the person in charge of the air conditioning settings felt that his authority had been undermined and that the CFO had also sent a note complaining that the company’s email server wasn’t quite the right place for surveys on office temperature.

Although Manuela learned her lesson from this incident, she still finds it hard not to speak directly to a senior manager about an urgent problem when she runs into him in the coffee room, but to pass each question through her boss – even though this may take days instead of minutes.

Time is also an issue for Gustavo, an editorial assistant who moved to Canada from Chile, where office hours are very different. He has to get up a lot earlier for work here than he had to back home, where office hours are usually between 10 am to 8 pm, including an extended mid-day break with a big meal. The quick sandwich break he tends to have here surely isn’t his idea of how to regain energy for the rest of his day. Apart from this, he sees quite a few advantages in working at a Canadian office, for example that he is allowed to listen to his favourite band at his desk while in Chile he wasn’t even allowed to turn on the radio.

Wherever you come from and whatever worries you may have about starting to work for a Canadian company, there is one thing you should always keep in mind: people realize that you are new and don’t expect you to act like you have lived here all your life. Eventually you will get used to the ‘Canadian ways’, but there is no reason to stress yourself out in the beginning if you notice that you haven’t gotten it quite right yet.