Tips for Onboarding Skilled Immigrants

Jill Chesley of the Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council talks about the steps you can take to ensure a new employee will succeed in your organization.  (This article was first published in the Commerce News; The Voice of Business in Edmonton, in December of 2012, Vol. 34 No.11 and republished in ERIEC’s blog- The Wave.)

By Jill Chesley, ERIEC

It is projected that by 2025, immigrants will constitute 100% of the growth in the Canadian labour market. Combine this potential business reality with the fact that recruitment and training of new employees is a significant expense, and you will understand why effective onboarding and retention of internationally educated employees is crucial.

There are steps that employers can take to ensure that the new employee will succeed and contribute to the organization’s goals. Orientation, training/development, setting expectations, and mentoring are important components of a new hire’s first few weeks or months on the job.

Many immigrants come from work environments where orientation is a 2-week long process. Imagine their surprise when they arrive at work in Edmonton and have a one-day orientation. Employers often encourage new hires to make themselves comfortable in their new workspace, and to ask questions when needed, but the immigrant may not know who to ask, or may be hesitant to approach colleagues who are very busy.

Orientation should include a number of topics in addition to the employee’s regular list of job duties and requirements. No orientation for newcomers is complete or effective without addressing workplace culture. What are the norms of behaviour, communication, dress, breaks, social conversation, or meeting etiquette? Cultures vary widely in their approaches to verbal and non-verbal communication, personal space, hierarchy, teamwork, initiative, formality, punctuality and privacy. Employers need to help a new employee understand how things work in their new work environment – help them integrate.

Perhaps most importantly, orientation should involve introductions to colleagues. Many immigrants come from countries where relationships must be developed before work can get done. By facilitating introductions with peers, and it will help them start on the right foot.

Exploration of such cultural issues is often best done through training with an experienced intercultural facilitator over the first few weeks of the immigrant’s employment. It is also effective to have Canadian staff in the sessions; they, too, need to understand cultural differences and how to best work in multicultural teams. Other training topics such English in the workplace and communication can also be useful for the new employee.

Employers need to set expectations with the new employee and provide feedback on their performance. It is important to explain key requirements of the job, key performance issues, and goals of the work team and/or organization. Expectations need to be clear, concrete and timely. Employers need to create opportunities to provide frank and constructive feedback in the first weeks and months. Canadians are often too polite, and couch criticism in a “feedback sandwich”. A newcomer might not hear criticism that is subtly expressed. The skilled immigrant wants to perform well, get along with colleagues and contribute to the team, but needs the information to do so.

Mentorship or a buddy system can be an effective way to address many of the issues described above.  Many organizations have internal mentorship programs that are excellent ways to help a new hire integrate, and to allow the mentor to grow professionally as well. A mentor or a buddy is a colleague who shows the new employee around, makes introductions, answers questions – especially ones that the new employee might be embarrassed to ask anyone else – and provides feedback. This responsibility should be part of the buddy’s job description, and not a task that is piled on top of an already full workload.

One issue not yet mentioned is culture shock. Culture shock can happen at any time, and not just to immigrants who are brand new. Learn the symptoms and signs of culture shock, and prepare organizational strategies to support the employees through it.