Providing an Intercultural Context


Imagine coming to a new country and having to find a job.

Imagine not being sure where to look for job postings or how to dress in an interview. Imagine not knowing if you should shake hands with the interviewer. Imagine if you are doing all this when English is not your first language.

When you come to live in a culture that is different from your own, you may struggle to do the “right” thing.

This is the reality for newcomers who arrive in Canada. A mentorship program can help newcomers learn about the work culture and behaviour in their new home. It can help them find work and fit into their new workplace.

Ana Maria Ortiz went through this when she moved to Edmonton. “It’s hard to be a newcomer in Canada because you don’t know many things about this culture,” she says. “Everything is new.”

While the resources provided by the Alberta Mentorship Program can help any kind of career mentorship, the primary focus is on programs and participants who are supporting newcomers to Canada. Mentorship can help smooth the transition for newcomers as they look for work or try to understand the Canadian workplace culture.

“The mentorship program is a really good opportunity to get to know the Canadian culture, to be involved in the Canadian context,” says Ortiz. She found that mentorship made her transition in Canada better. “I’m really happy and I appreciate everything that this program can offer.”

ERIEC has been providing mentorship for newcomers since 2008. Doug Piquette, ERIEC’s Executive Director, has seen mentorship programs can be an important part of a successful, professional transition.

“Really what mentorship does is that it allows, especially in the case of professional immigrants, the possibility of getting insider information about what the Canadian workplace is like,” says Piquette.

By having a mentoring partner who “gets” Canadian culture, mentees can ask questions in a safe space where they will not be seen as silly. Mentors can clarify or give context that might be different in Canada than in the mentees’ previous country.

The Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council (CRIEC) has been providing mentorship programs since 2010. Bao Ho, Strategic Partner Coordinator at CRIEC, has seen how mentorship can remind newcomers of the value they bring to Canada during that professional transition.

“One of our mentees talked about the fantastic amount of confidence that they were able to get just talking to someone who believed in them and supported them and who reminded them of their skills as a professional that they brought to Canada,” says Ho.

What is Cultural Competency?

As part of setting our mentoring focus on newcomers to Canada, it is important for us to consider our cultural competency. Cultural competency is a skill that we can all develop. It is more than seeing diversity but being able to communicate and understand each other despite our differences.

In the book Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring, Lisa Z. Fain and Loise J. Zachary write that “Mentoring that bridges differences promotes inclusion, it enables mentoring partners to feel comfortable being themselves and authentically expressing their thoughts and experiences.”

The goal of cultural competency is not to erase our differences or only focus on the things that we have in common. Instead we learn to recognize differences, acknowledge them, then make sure that we communicate clearly despite our differences.

Cultural competency helps us to see our cultural bias: or the things that we assume are “right” not because they are correct but because that is what we are used to in Canada. This can help us be aware and even comfortable when people do things differently. Even better, we can learn new perspectives that open us to different ways of problem solving or completing work.

When mentors, mentees, and employers have cultural competency, it can help to bridge not only cultural difference but difference of age, generation, profession, experience, or gender. Being able to work well within our differences can make us better communicators, which builds strong company culture.

How Does Cultural Competency Help Mentorship

When a mentor is able to recognize cultural differences, they will be better listeners and more able to support their mentee. They can also help pinpoint the differences during the mentoring relationship in a way that supports a more directed job search. Ashish Mehta, a mentor with ERIEC, understands how this helps mentees. “Being an insider, I know what skills are required in the contemporary job market.”

But it is more than just the small cultural differences that matter. It is about seeing how the newcomer’s skills fit into the Canadian job market. The mentor may be aware of opportunities in Canada that tap into the mentee’s skills in a way that they did not consider.

“I can take her skill set or her previous experience and we can build on the required skill set of the Canadian job market,” says Mehta. “By bridging the gap, she can be employment-ready very quickly.”

Carlen Ng, a CRIEC mentor, understands there is a big difference between reading about cultural differences and living it. When Ng had a mentee, they were able to have conversations about specific situations and the nuances of differences. “We covered some of the cultural expectations in Canada that are really difficult to explain in a book or a seminar,” says Ng. “Really, you have to talk about it in a conversation.”

These conversations create learning opportunities for both the mentee and the mentor. Not only does the mentee learn about their new home, but they provide the mentor with a new perspective about Canada. Spending time with people who have an outside view of Canada can give mentors empathy for the newcomer’s experience. It will also give insight into the Canadian culture, providing fresh ideas or the ability to better bridge diversity in other situations.

Inevitably, through formal training or though the mentoring relationship, mentors and mentees can increase their cultural competency. When they bring this skill to the workplace, it will make businesses better able to incorporate diversity and create a more inclusive workplace culture.

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