Not counting my short stint in a government office and a Filipino-owned travel agency, I’ve worked for three big Canadian companies since I came to Canada – I worked for almost 2 years in Canada’s largest quick service coffee restaurant chain as Store Front Service Staff; 5 years in a food retail company wherein I started as Pension and Benefits Administrator until I became Office Manager and left in 2016. Right now, I am employed by the regional health authority in the city of Winnipeg as Pension and Benefits Regional CS Representative.
I guess those who immigrated to Canada like me and have experienced working in other countries outside Canada will agree that every workplace has its own culture. Like what I mentioned, I had a very short stint in a government office, 2 months after we arrived in Winnipeg, I got hired as Administrative Assistant. The job was not hard but I had to quit the job because of child care issues. I will not deny that even if I feel that I know what to do and I know exactly what the job is, I felt uncomfortable and I am clueless on how I should be relating with my co-workers. I don’t even know how should I respond to co-workers who greet me each morning. Yes, that is the very first thing that I noticed when I started working, when you see your co-workers for the first time in the day, they offer you a greeting, it could be a simple “Hi!” or “Good morning!” Canadians give importance to the standard of basic civility that his or her co-worker is entitled to and it would seem rude on your part not to do the same.
That was just the start, there are other things that I learned from my 8 years’ experience of working here in Canada, but I am not saying that these are standard norms, these are just based on my own observations.
I will be honest to say that in the first few months that I was working, I am certain that I had committed cultural faux pas (or maybe until now I still do), but, I guess it really takes time and a lot of practice ?
Being the so called “foreigner” in the past 8 years, here are the things that I learned/discovered:
- SMALL TALK. Starting and making small talk is one of the things that I am not good of, there may not be a written rule about engaging in a small talk, but small talk is part of Canada’s friendly culture especially in the workplace. I see it to be a very good way to feel comfortable with the people you meet or talk at work. Small talk helps to break the ice and a great way of starting a small talk is by simply saying, “how are you?” Like what I said, I am not good at this, at first, I feel pressured whenever my boss or a co-worker would ask me how my weekend went. I felt the need to come up with a really sensible answer to make our conversation really interesting until I realized that “It was great or it was a very busy weekend” is a polite and enough answer, of course, it would be nice if you can ask him or her back with “how about you?”
- INFORMAL HIERARCHAL RELATIONSHIP. Two months before leaving the Philippines for Canada, I was still working in a construction company, I could still recall how we are used to addressing our immediate supervisors and the executives of the company with “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Since workplace hierarchy here in Canada is more informal, you don’t address your boss as “sir” or “ma’am” and you address them by their first name instead. There was a time that I don’t feel comfortable with it and I had to remind myself to call them by their first name. And since everyone is on first-name basis, one of the challenge when you are new to the organization is to identify “who is who” in the company, hence, whenever I am unsure who I am meeting or exchanging email with, the first thing I will do is to look them up in the company directory to see their position title.
- COFFEE IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF EVERYONE’S DAY. When I was still working as Storefront Service Staff, I realized how coffee plays an integral part on Canadian employees’ day because of the long line up in the drive thru each morning. People grab a cup of coffee before going to work. In any workplace, it is a common sight to see your co-workers coming in to the office carrying a cup of Tim Hortons or Starbucks or Robin’s Donuts. I am fortunate that I had kind workmates in my previous job, my co-workers would come in the morning with a cup of coffee for everyone in our department. Until we all unknowingly did the same, we took turns in bringing coffee for everyone.
- WORK-LIFE BALANCE. As of this writing, I am a proud employee of one of the top 20 employers of Manitoba that cultivated a reputation of being a great place to work for giving importance to work/life balance. Most companies would have programs for their employees that will support those who have competing priorities that they need to attend to. Employers policy or program may differ but more often than not employers may offer work from home or their employees cab choose to adapt a flexible work schedule, while some employers allow their employees to take personal and indefinite vacation upon employees’ request.
- EMPLOYERS’ VALUE CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY. Corporate social responsibility is a business initiative that is very important to most Canadian companies. My former employer was very committed in putting more discipline into social-responsibility efforts and because of that I had the chance to participate in various company activities that promote environmental and social well-being in the community such as plant-a-tree activity, shoreline cleanup and other waste-reducing activities as well as fund raising drives for charities, we also had the chance to attend volunteer events during our working hours. My current employer is a big supporter of a national charity, we have activities at work which will help generate funds for the charity that our organization is supporting, a mass email is sent to employees to solicit support to activities. It is also common for some co-workers who personally participates in fund-raising drives and seeks sponsorship from their colleagues at work.
- EMPLOYEES MANAGE HIS/HER CAREER. Over the years, I also noticed that Canadian employers expect the employees to manage his or her career. Depending on your personal career goals, if you are interested in a more challenging job, you should communicate this with your supervisor or your manager. Though it may take some time for you to move ahead and get the job that you want but taking initiative will let your employer know that you have the ability to contribute in other projects. Less than a year after my husband was hired as a part time permanent Warehouse Assembler, he applied for the position of Warehouse Supervisor. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the position but after announcing who got the job, the (then) General Manager spoke to him and gave him a pat on the back and told him that he is happy to know that he is interested to move up. A year after that, my husband has been considered to a full time permanent position and after another year in his full time position, he got the position that he tried to have – he is still with the same company that he is in 8 years ago and holding the position of Warehouse Supervisor.
- FREE FOOD FOR EMPLOYEES. I am not sure if it’s just in the companies I worked for, but I noticed that whenever there’s something that is being celebrated or a big project that was completed, “free food” will soon be available for everyone at work. I guess food is seen as a way of rewarding the employees. In the retail company that I worked for, we had a number of reasons and occasions to celebrate, there were a lot of occasions that we had free food in the office. We had free breakfast at one point, we had barbeque lunch, we also received free bags of cookie, chocolate bars and even popcorns. There was even a time that our food were served by all the managers and directors for the employee appreciation day.
- EXCHANGE OF PLEASANTRIES. Even before we came to Canada I already heard a lot of good things about Canadians. Being nice and polite is one of the few things that seem to define Canadians. I couldn’t agree more because I’ve experience that even at work, even we are in a hurry and we are too busy to strike up a conversation, it is but normal that your co-workers will always acknowledge your presence even through a simple hi. Every day, there’s always, always, always expressions like “have a great day,” “have a good evening,”“see you later,” or “talk to you later.” However, there are some words of pleasantry that you should not take as it is. I remember a friend’s story on her first day in her first job in Canada, when she was about to leave at the end of the day one of her co-workers waved at her and told her, “see you later!”. That left her wondering why her co-worker said see you later and for a while she thought that she needs to wait for her… Yup, there are expressions that you should learn not to take literally, you can always say “see you later!” or “talk to you later!” even if you don’t have future plans to do it as it is taken as a more pleasant way of ending the conversation aside from saying “bye.”
I am sure that there are other Canadian workplace characteristics that I failed to enumerate here… how about you, what’s on your list?