Helping foreign workers feel more Integrated in the workplace

April 24, 2024
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By 2031, one in three employees in the Quebec workplace will be from a foreign country.

By 2031, one in three employees in the Quebec workplace will be from a foreign country. It can be argued that an integral part of Canada’s economic success relates to its immigration policies and good international relations. If there’s one stereotype that holds true, it’s that Canada is a friendly country!

Given that immigrants make up such a large proportion of the Canadian labor force (and play such a vital role in our economic prosperity), it’s important that there be a greater degree of support for foreign workers transitioning into the workplace.  

Immigrants generally have to overcome an array of challenges when they move to a new country. Such challenges often include language barriers, familiarity with their location, as well as knowledge of the various systems within the new environment (e.g., healthcare, education, employment, etc.). These sorts of challenges are quite normal and can be expected when entering a new environment, but other obstacles, such as social exclusion, should not constitute an additional barrier for immigrants. In order to address this, there needs to be an emphasis on social inclusion.

Social inclusion means “making sure that all children and adults are able to participate as valued, respected, and contributing members of society.”

Importantly, social inclusion extends beyond simply bringing immigrants into the workplace. It emphasizes bridging the physical, cultural, social, and psychological distance that separates people. For immigrant workers, social inclusion involves dismantling the barriers (e.g., discrimination, unemployment, income inequality) that lead to exclusion in the economic, social, and cultural domains of life.

New minority workers require security and comfort in occupational settings.

Security in the workplace includes both physical and psychological security. Psychological security at work means fostering a climate characterized by mutual respect, where employees feel comfortable about expressing their opinions (regardless of how different those opinions might be). Comfort in the workplace also involves having a sense of familiarity with the new environment and its processes, along with increased social support.  

All of these factors are, of course, critical in any workplace and for all employees, but they may be more challenging to fully achieve when it comes to foreign workers. Employers and employees must learn to be more culturally sensitive and understanding of the many cross-cultural challenges that immigrants may experience.  

Minority workers are often devaluated, and systemic discriminatory practices often leave them feeling rejected. Accordingly, it’s important for employers and fellow employees to cultivate greater sensitivity towards these issues and work on better integrating immigrant workers into the organizational culture.

Here’s what YOU can do to help a foreign employee integrate better at work:

  1. Be inclusive  

Take a curious and open-minded approach to someone else’s culture; be inquisitive and ask questions. Embrace these cultural differences! By demonstrating sincerity and a genuine admiration for diversity, you encourage foreign workers to feel safe and accepted for who they are.  

Also, be mindful about how familiar your foreign co-workers are with the local culture and try to choose topics for conversation with which they would have familiarity. It’s important to provide newcomers with ample opportunities to connect and feel a sense of belonging.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to take on the sole responsibility of helping recent immigrants better integrate.You can also offer your support by referring them to resources/centres that can assist them. If you are in Montreal, Action Réfugiés Montréal provides support for refugees and asylum seekers, ACCESSS provides information and resources for accessing health and social services, Multicultural Mental Health Resource Centre provides resources in multiple languages to support culturally-informed mental health care for diverse populations, and SIARI provides interpretation and translation services in different languages. For resources outside of Montreal, you can refer to this index by the government of Canada to find relevant organizations near you.

  1. Be patient.

It may take longer for someone new to adapt to all aspects of a job and be able to perform at the same level, especially if there are language barriers and  a lack of familiarity with the cultural norms and practices in the workplace. Be patient and encouraging: with time and quality training, their productivity will increase.  

They may also have questions that could seem obvious to you but are completely understandable for someone who is much less familiar with the organization and its processes. Take the time to answer and elaborate when needed, and be sure to do this warmly and compassionately.

  1. Be mindful of language/communication barriers.

It may help to speak a bit more slowly and use simple language when communicating with co-workers who are not as fluent in English. You may occasionally need to repeat something or try to explain it differently so that the message can get across or so they can fully understand. It may also be helpful to ask if they’ve understood, because they may feel too embarrassed to ask you to repeat.

  1. Improve your awareness of cross-cultural differences in interpersonal workplace situations.

Immigrants from eastern collectivist cultural backgrounds (i.e. Asian cultures) that emphasize cohesion among individuals and prioritize the larger group over each individual will approach and respond to workplace situations much differently than those from western individualistic backgrounds (i.e. North and South America).  

For example, individuals from Asian cultures tend to be more subordinate with authority figures and are less likely to speak up and share opposing opinions. In these scenarios, it may be especially helpful to encourage assertiveness and promote the idea that sometimes disagreeing and constructively challenging others can be really helpful for the success of the organization as a whole.

Cultural differences can also lead to some things getting lost in cultural translation. For example, a British worker may use sarcasm to convey a point lightheartedly but someone from a different culture might interpret this message more literally and subsequently feel offended. To minimize the likelihood of cultural miscommunication, it can be helpful to ask clarifying questions during interactions with workers of different cultural backgrounds to make sure (rather than assuming) that what is being expressed is in line with what is being understood.  

We ALL have a meaningful role to play in the workplace...

We are so fortunate to have such a diverse workforce and it’s important to remember that we can all play a part in making the workplace an inclusive environment that fosters growth and success for everyone, including our foreign workers. Given the array of challenges that immigrants in Canada naturally have to go through, we can do a lot to help reduce this burden for them in the workplace by providing meaning making them feel we are so fortunate to have such a diverse workforce and it’s important to remember that we can all play a part in making the workplace an inclusive environment that fosters growth and success for everyone, including our foreign workers.



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