Insight for international students: Learning Canada’s workplace culture


By Arwen Kidd

Friendly. Respectful. Bilingual. A true team player. Open to new cultures. Humble. Peaceful. Loves the outdoors.

If Canada were a job applicant, this could be an excerpt from her resumé. But as a potential employer? The question is: what is she looking for?

As an international student or recent grad hoping to break into the Canadian job scene for the first time, there are a number of things to keep in mind. That doesn’t mean you have to learn to be “more Canadian” in order to compete (e.g., have no fear if you can’t stomach a plateful of maple syrup, or if the idea of freezing your butt off in an ice rink sends shivers of dread running down your spine).

Being different is okay – celebrated, in fact, as the country prides itself on strong diversity and multiculturalism – but you should still be prepared to be flexible and understand the unique traits that make Canadian work culture what it is.

How to search for the right job

One of the biggest hurdles in finding yourself happily employed is knowing where to look. In Canada, besides the sometimes elusive but always present ‘invisible market’ (think networking!), job ads are typically found in both local and national newspapers (keep an eye out for Saturday editions), and online (along with TalentEgg, visit Job Bank or ).

Alternatively, you can also try going through a recruitment agency or employment company.

What is valued by Canadian employers?

Abide by the general “Canadian-isms”:  be polite (open doors for others, stand up when introduced to someone new), have a positive can-do attitude, and always greet people with a smile. Oh, and never be afraid to say “Sorry!” – a favourite pastime nation-wide.

Teamwork and communication skills are also important to Canadian employers, who value a mix of creativity and professionalism – all the while expecting their employees to remain ever flexible.  Sound like hard work? That’s because it is!

How to interact – Canadian workplace and business etiquette

Whether you like it or not, learning to embrace (and practice) being Politically Correct (or “PC” – if you’re unfamiliar with this term, click here) is generally considered a Canadian workplace prerequisite. Now that doesn’t mean ‘lose all sense of humour’ – Canadians certainly appreciate a good sense of humour, when appropriate (again, think “PC”) – but you should gauge each new situation to determine what is acceptable.

Drinking alcohol while on the job is strongly discouraged, even during lunches (other than perhaps a single drink…maybe), and smoking indoors has been widely banned across the country. Personal hygiene is also taken quite seriously – with some offices publicly declaring themselves as “scent-free” zones, limiting allergies as well as annoyance. In other words, you might want to rethink spraying on your favourite perfume, at least until you’ve figured out the lay of your new work place.

And in general – if you’re ever unsure of your “office appearance” (e.g., dress, make-up, hair), it might be worth asking a friendly new colleague for a second opinion.

Want additional tips? Visit for more specially tailored points on business etiquette.

Realizing (and adapting to) different workplace cultures.

Different workplaces, like different countries, tend to have distinctive cultural ‘norms’ – and often, the line between what is acceptable and what is not varies greatly from job to job. For example, company policies often fluctuate on such issues as tattoos, piercings, dress codes, break-taking, personal use of office resources such as fax machines or photocopiers, scheduling of medical appointments during working hours, personal email use or internet browsing during office hours, leeway for family obligations, etc.  So realize that even though something may not be stated outright in your contract, that doesn’t mean it’s a ‘non-issue’.

Any of these things sound like potential ‘deal-breakers’ for you? Then be sure to enquire about them during any job interviews you have.

Perks … and realities

Dream of starting out your new Canadian career as a powerful executive, free to take month-long breaks to luxurious five-star destinations?

Well, you might want to wake up and smell the coffee. As the typical 9-5, five-day-a-week job grows more scarce, employees need to brace themselves for the prospect of longer hours – and be prepared to work their way up the ladder, as an entry-level position (with entry-level pay) is where most people start out.

As far as ‘time off’ is concerned, if you’re expecting European-style vacation allotments, it’s time to think again. The average Canadian employee, in addition to standard statutory and provincial holidays, receives two weeks of paid vacation per year. It is possible to negotiate extra unpaid time off, but again, this is something you might want to consider before you sign your name on any dotted line.

In general, Canadians are well-known to be friendly, easygoing people – a trait largely reflected in the workplace as well! So as long as you can learn to balance your time effectively between working hard and playing hard – while remembering that key word, “flexibility” – then you’re sure to fit in well.

Arwen Kidd is the Communications Director at the Canadian University Application Centre, which represents member Canadian universities and their select degree programs in order to better serve international students around the world.

Photo credit: Happy Canada Day! by Ian Muttoo on Flickr