I moved to Canada from Nigeria when I was 16 as an international student, so I’ve always been interested in ‘immigrant identities’ and the experiences that shape us. For many Canadians, the “immigrant story” is not so foreign. Last year, 95% of Canadian population growth was due to international migration– a data point with unique implications for the workplace. A lot of migration to Canada is driven by policies and programs inviting internationally trained professionals to relocate if they meet strict requirements. Recently, the Canadian Immigration Minister announced new, fast-tracked ways to bring sought-after tech talent into Canada with even less red tape. This invitation to contribute to the growth of the Canadian economy and the ensuing response seems pretty straightforward; Canada needs people, and those seeking new opportunities respond by emigrating. However, both anecdotal data and research show that having the qualifications is only half of the equation. The “right” background for these programs (i.e. highly educated, years of international work experience and the economic means) does not necessarily translate to suitable jobs or inclusive work experiences, making a new gap visible. As Canada’s labour market continues to tighten and immigrants continue to represent a significant portion of the labour market, employers will need to engage in deliberate efforts to ensure their hiring and employment practices are ready to truly welcome and support newcomers. In my work as an HR consultant to forward-thinking companies, I set out to build a playbook to help them get started.
In my research, I pored through academic papers, and reports centred on the immigrant experience and reached out to friends and connections with 1-10+ years of work experience in Canada. I asked about their expectations of the job market before emigrating, the differences between their previous work experiences in their home countries and Canada, and their experiences navigating the Canadian workplace. Their responses showed that there had been some positive shifts in the eleven years since I entered the job market myself. On the plus side, many noted that the concept of “Canadian Experience” felt like less of a stumbling block these days. One friend from Nigeria got a job before relocating, and others got high-paying roles aligned with their skills and previous work experiences shortly after arriving. However, there were also the immigrant stories you tend to hear more often- stories of the barriers that prevent newcomers from finding meaningful work early and experiences that make newcomers question their identity and if they belong. Many noted challenges around social integration and feeling like an outsider. These stories speak to a need for more personal and professional networks, gaps in cultural awareness on both sides, more weight given to experience vs. education, a rethinking of the scrutiny that foreign credentials are often subject to and, once employed, a need to ensure newcomers feel truly included.
While openness to hiring individuals with less familiar backgrounds is the first thing I’d want employers to consider, it doesn’t stop there. Organizations can do four key things to ensure their hiring practices and overall workplace experience is designed to welcome immigrants:
Accept that requiring candidates to have “Canadian” experience is a shortcut.
Having done some work in recruitment, I know it’s time-consuming. Although it may seem like a vote of confidence when another Canadian employer has “vetted” a candidate, preferring an individual because they have worked for another Canadian employer is a lazy approach. It’s relying on someone else to do an initial screening for you when you don’t even know what they were looking for. Also, having this as a prerequisite deprives you of a new hire with a fresh perspective and all the great benefits of having a diverse workforce. To quote a friend, “It was frustrating because if I didn’t have a job, how was I supposed to get the Canadian experience I needed to get a job? I hated it. I thought my education would be enough, but that wasn’t the case, so I worked random jobs until I found an in”. Instead of crossing off candidates whose most recent job was outside of Canada, do the work to read through their experiences and see how they could be a match for what you are looking for. Don’t make assumptions about their people skills, communication skills, and what they can and cannot do. If it makes you feel more at ease, look up their former employers on Google or Linkedin and read more about their past organizations, what they do, and how their experience may suit your opening. But beyond all this, ask yourself what Canadian experience is a proxy for. Is it a way to ensure the person understands the unspoken rules of the Canadian workplace, has “soft skills” or something else undefinable? Determine whether your concerns are valid and check your bias by seeing if you’d be proud to say your reservations out loud.
Take a critical look at your hiring and onboarding processes.
You have a duty to yourself, existing employees and prospective employees to have an effective hiring process. It makes all the difference when leaders, hiring managers and their talent acquisition teams align on what is necessary for a role's success before hiring begins– not wants, nice to-haves or other desires that aren’t relevant. A good process ensures the organization finds the best candidates, helps existing employees know how the new role fits into existing work at the organization, allows managers to define what success looks like (and how to manage performance) and gives candidates a clearer picture of the role. It’s also essential to advertise jobs in a variety of communities and have a hiring team trained to recognize the various ways a skill can manifest so that if a viable candidate presents differently, they’ll still have a fair chance. The interview process should also include a thoughtfully assembled interview panel, sensible interview questions and assessments, relevant interviewer training (including bias training) and transparent standards to assess candidates’ responses. When onboarding, do the work to set people up for success and don’t make assumptions about what people might know. A strong employee handbook including a guide to your organization’s working norms is a big help. Beyond this, if you observe small gaps in the employee’s experience and approach that the right coaching and training can fix, don’t hesitate to share feedback and set the employee up with these opportunities to get them on the right track.
Take extra steps to ensure your people are set up for success.
This can take many forms, but a good place to start is by helping your new team member build community since this is an area where new immigrants often feel lacking. Pair them with a buddy. Consider who they need to meet at the organization and how you can help make that connection. Do they have a strong interest in an area of work, and do you know someone at the organization they can connect with about it? Or do you know physical or virtual communities that they’ll benefit from joining? These are small but helpful ways to help them build community. In building your own relationship, treat your 1:1s as an opportunity to get to know each other's work styles, communication styles, and expectations. Share your perspective on things about work (and life in Canada) that are second nature to you but may be newer for them. A small but helpful thing I did when a former employer hired a new team member from France was to create a ‘Welcome to Toronto’ guide, where I highlighted things like transportation options for getting around, financial institutions to open a bank account, tax deadlines, how to find a family doctor and access health services, how to get a SIN, grocery stores, how to find events in the city etc. I’d like to think it made a difference. These won’t take a ton of time and will go a long way to help your new team members feel just that much more comfortable in their new environment.
Know that cultural nuances will surface.
Just like when you visit a new country and need to learn the local customs, newcomers will have to get familiar with and adjust to many things in Canadian society. You may have heard of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, a framework that describes and compares cultural differences across six dimensions- power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, long vs. short-term orientation and indulgence vs. restraint. While some of them may not be applicable, you may observe these in action depending on your new team member’s background. In 2022, Canada’s top 5 immigration sources were countries with high power distance cultures. In these places, workplaces tend to have a distinct gap and hierarchy between those in positions of power/authority and everybody else, e.g. between a manager and their direct report. This is not to say you should make broad generalizations based on people’s backgrounds; everyone is different. Personally, it took me a long time to feel comfortable viewing my managers as equals and not as authority figures. At first, I felt I needed permission from them for every little thing. Equally important is the need to be mindful of how these differences can lead to various degrees of harm toward an immigrant. From their actions/work style being misunderstood (mild) to their career progression being stalled (serious). For instance, a lack of verbal participation in meetings should not be viewed as a lack of interest, and a lack of self-advocacy should not be defined as an absence of a desire to progress. And, of course, pay attention to what you label “unprofessional.” If you observe what you might think are cultural differences that do not impact their ability to do their job, then so be it. Enjoy the beauty that diversity brings. However, if these differences affect their ability to do their job, reputation, or limits their ability to enjoy career success, manage it in a way that you would any other constructive feedback. Bring it up privately in a 1:1, and do so from a place of curiosity and genuinely wanting to help, keep it focused on work, and don’t try to fit them into a specific mould. If you’ve done the groundwork to create psychological safety and convey your feedback genuinely, they’ll appreciate it.