Bridging the cultural gap – a critical business factor

Bridging the cultural gap – a critical business factor
The Canadian workplace is undergoing radical changes in cultural diversity. According to the Conference Board of Canada and Statistics Canada, from 2011 forward, the majority of new hires will be from the immigrant talent pool.
Immigrants are also expected to represent the major population growth in Canada over the next two decades. This means that not only do they represent a substantial and vital talent pool; they will also become the dominant customers, business partners and consumers of the future.

Making the business case for hiring new Canadians
Hiring managers who do not acknowledge this reality will face real challenges, and may find themselves losing out on available talent, simply because they did not put the measures in place to attract internationally educated candidates. Employers must find more effective ways to recognize the quality of immigrant talent, understand its potential role in a company’s success, and adjust their processes and practices accordingly. While philanthropy and good corporate citizenship have played a role in many diversity initiatives, it is the business case that has become far more compelling motivation.

Changing hiring practices to be more inclusive
Despite the numbers, many employers continue to remain entrenched in traditional hiring, interviewing and training methods. As a result, they often lose out on opportunities to acquire highly qualified talent because the application and interview process did not show the candidate in their best light.

It could be as simple as differing perceptions of eye contact or language use. An individual whose first language is not English may not communicate as diplomatically as an English-speaking person. A candidate may be talented and a team player, but is unable to articulate those soft skills in an interview.

Cultural competency needs to be developed by all individuals within an organization, but unfortunately, most organizations are not equipped to facilitate cultural bridging.  As a result, great talent is falling through the cracks.

There are two major challenges to becoming a culturally savvy organization. One is the fact that culture is not taught explicitly through reading or traditional classroom settings. Rather, it is implicit and tacit – something that we typically acquire through “osmosis.” Immigrant professionals are not always aware of the need for cultural bridging and what they need to do to overcome the hurdles they face in the job market.

The other is the implicit sense of Canadian-educated individuals feeling that it is not up to them to change and adapt, despite the fact that in some major cities in Canada they are no longer the official “majority.”

Workplace Communication in Canada program
This is an issue that The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University is attempting to address through its Workplace Communication in Canada (WCC) program, currently offered both in-class and online. This fall Chang will be launching a new segment that will be offered free of charge through to March 2011 as part of a pilot funded by the government of Ontario.

The first module of the pilot is a self-test that was developed with industry partners.  It will address one of the most important steps in the cultural bridging process: the buy-in. This self-test is a ‘reality check’ for individuals who have moved from one culture to another and may not yet realize the day-to-day applications of cultural differences in a workplace environment.

The second module is designed for hiring managers and employees. Participants will learn the importance of understanding the broad spectrum of culture-based behaviours and the need to change recruiting, interviewing and integration processes and practices. Immigrant professionals will gain a deeper awareness of their own need for cultural bridging to allow successful integration and growth.
This is followed by a series of six online courses for international professionals, which address core competencies such as cultural awareness, interpersonal communication, networking and informal communication, client focused communication, conflict management, ethical behavior and teamwork all in the context of the Canadian workplace.  
Also new this fall, learners are eligible for the Ontario Bridging Participant Assistance Program (OBPAP), which provides bursaries of up to $2,600 to cover direct education costs (equivalent to five courses or a full program stream). This bursary will be awarded to international professionals based on financial need and can be used to participate in courses offered by the WCC program.

In my years of teaching, I always tell internationally educated learners that the only way to bring cultural wealth into the workplace is to first learn the rules of the local game. Once you understand and play by those rules and have gained the trust of the organization, then you can move on to enriching the workplace with your wealth of cultural experiences and perspectives.

It is equally important for Canadian-educated individuals to remember that striving towards true cultural inclusion and equity in the workplace cannot be based on policies, processes and procedures alone. It has to start with individuals truly believing in the value of culturally diverse teams and in their need and ability to expand their own cultural competency.

As with all change processes, ultimately, it’s not the tools that are the problem. It’s the willingness to learn that is the biggest hurdle of all.

Dr. Nava Israel is program manager, Workplace Communication in Canada, at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.  For more information visit