Cultural Differences and Transferable Soft Skills

Cultural Differences and Transferable Soft Skills

How Newcomers Can Better Integrate into the Canadian Workplace

By Susan L. Woronko and Alden E. Habacon

For at least a decade, technology companies in BC have been saying newcomers to Canada arrive with ample technical ability for the available jobs in the growing sector. Their qualifications, however, don’t make up for a gap in soft skills.

Many newcomers misread their struggle in acquiring employment and look to adding to their already long list of educational credentials, rather than bridging that gap.

The reason soft skills is such a critical factor for prosperity in Canada is that when employers ask about “Canadian experience,” what they are actually looking for is evidence that the candidate can work well with Canadians. They want an assurance that this hire will go well with the existing employees.

The main reason that soft skills remain out of the grasp of many people is that Canadians have a hard time articulating what “soft skills” actually encompass, beyond the sense of interpersonal skills.

Certainly, interaction is a big part of the soft skills package, but it’s only a part of it. Within the arena of just interaction includes the capacity to network with strangers (which includes the art of small talk), effectively communicate (verbally and non-verbally), working in teams, collaborating with others, and demonstrating empathy. The umbrella of “interpersonal skills” doesn’t seem to capture the complex suite of skills needed for all these activities.

The other large category of soft skills has to do with one’s professional reputation, and how you are perceived by others in a professional environment. This includes your ability to present your personal brand, to evoke integrity and possess a sense what behaviours are expected in a Canadian work environment.

Often the most technically qualified candidate will not be chosen because they do not come across as having optimism, enthusiasm and motivation. To the Canadian employer, these are signs that this candidate will be a challenge to work with. The last grouping of soft skills is tied to performance: the ability to think critically and problem solve.

It is important to note that all cultures have and use soft skills.

If Canadians were to move to the Asia Pacific, for example, they would have to learn how to network and collaborate appropriately in the different cultural environment.

Newcomers do not arrive to Canada deficient of soft skills. They often have a deep well of them, just not all will be applicable in the Canadian workplace. For many internationally trained professionals, filling the soft skills gap is not about addressing a void, but adding to an existing tool chest.

So just what is the best way to determine which of your soft skills are transferrable, and which Canadian soft skills are a gap you need to fill?

As advocated in the Canadian Experience Means Soft Skills article, the experiential way is to get out there, volunteer, or meet as many different Canadians as you can, and through thousands of interactions, you may distill what water cooler jokes will be laughed at, and which ones fall flat.

In some cases, the soft skills from their country-of-origin will be transferrable. Making an effort to learn people’s names, occasionally bringing donuts, and getting to know colleagues’ birthdays. These gestures are common across many cultures.


As advocated in the 2015 article, the experiential way is to get out there, volunteer, or meet as many different Canadians as you can, and through thousands of interactions, you may distill what water cooler jokes will be laughed at, and which ones fall flat.

And then for those who prefer the classroom method, those who had acquired more credentials to solve their unemployment or under-employment woes, you are in luck! DIVERScity Community Resources Society has partnered with inclusion and diversity strategist Alden Habacon in creating an interactive workshop called “Succeeding in the Canadian Workplace”, an opportunity for newcomers to learn directly from the pros like Alden, and an opportunity to clinically dissect the illusive soft skills.

Learn more here


Alden E. Habacon
Alden E. Habacon is an accomplished diversity and inclusion strategist with over 10 years of experience in leading the development, implementation and staff engagement of strategy towards diversity and inclusion, organizational culture change, interculturalism and social sustainability. Habacon is currently the Senior Advisor, Intercultural Understanding for the University of British Columbia, having recently completed a five-year appointment as Director, Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development. Prior to UBC, he led the development and implementation of CBC’s national diversity strategy, as the Manager of Diversity Initiatives for CBC Television. He is also the co-producer of House My Style, a Mandarin-language real-estate reality program, currently airing on Omni Television.

Susan Liu Woronko
Susan Liu Woronko has been with DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society since 2008; at first managing the settlement programs under the auspice of the Government of BC. She has been managing Skills Training & Employment for the last three years, overseeing a number of programs funded by both federal and provincial governments, as well as grants from corporate partners such as Vancity Credit Union, TD and The Cooperators. Susan finds herself in a very exciting position where social services delivery and business innovation intersects.