Module 04: On the Job Success

4.4 Workplace Culture

What is workplace culture?

  • The character of an organization, including its values, attitudes, and behaviours as well as rules, policies and common practices
  • In simple terms it is often understood as “The unwritten rules of a workplace
  • Influenced by the wider culture, so workplaces in Canada tend to be influenced by dominant Canadian cultural values such as: independence, diversity, informality and punctuality
  • Vary across industries from casual (such as some tech or start-up companies) to more formal (such as corporate offices)


Workplace culture plays a significant role in determining employers’ expectations, and understanding what these expectations are is essential to your success at work. During your job search, you’ve likely identified organizations and workplace cultures where you feel best positioned to thrive. However, it’s important to acknowledge that for a variety of reasons you may need to accept a position at an organization that is not your optimal “fit”.



Jane stands in the centre of an elevator speaking with a man. The man stands to the left and another woman stands to her right.

Many organizations will make hiring decisions based on a candidate’s “fit” with the organizational or workplace culture in order to maintain a consistent culture and ensure staff get along. Some research has indicated that doing so may actually harm the company’s bottom line as hiring people with the same perspective can stifle growth and competing ideas.  Diverse teams can work together to come up with innovative solutions or approaches to problems which might not have been arrived at if members were too similar.

Sit back and observe

Understanding the values, beliefsand unspoken norms in your organization will help you more smoothly navigate the environment including understanding the values guiding decisions and how processes are run. Give yourself time to observe and uncover workplace expectations- your patience and perceptiveness will pay off in time. When starting a new job, it’s best to be reserved and professional until you get a feel for what is “normal” in your workplace.

For example, are there unwritten rules on taking breaks, calling in sick, and scheduling time off? Observe co-workers as well as your supervisor and try to emulate their behaviour. Do colleagues arrive early or stay late and, if so, how early or late? Do people tend to socialize with each other in the morning, at lunch or after work? What kinds of behaviours or approaches get rewarded? What kinds of ethical considerations are important to keep top of mind? How would you characterize the general atmosphere in the workplace? Is it boisterous or calm?  Upbeat or stressful? Is there a particularly important overarching mission or “sacred belief” or event around which co-workers rally?

If you’ve moved to Canada recently and/or don’t yet have local or sectoral work experience, you might notice that the expectations differ from those in other countries or contexts.

Here are some tips and reflection questions that may help you to succeed in a Canadian work environment:

Embrace diversity:  You’ll likely be working with people from a diversity of backgrounds.  It’s important that you’re able to work effectively with different types of people and that you embrace the opportunity to learn from others. Behave respectfully towards others and keep in mind that each colleague has something unique to contribute.

Questions to Reflect on:

  1. Have you worked in a diverse work environment before?
  2. What are some challenges you might face in a diverse work environment?
  • Be diplomatic, avoid direct communication: You may find that in many Canadian organizations, communication is often indirect. For example, if your manager wants you to work overtime they may not order you directly to do so, but might instead ask politely if you would be able to find time to finish the project today. Pay attention to both verbal cues and body language / facial expressions to avoid misunderstanding.

Question to Reflect on:

  1. Can you think of a time in a previous job or in your classes where indirect communication was used?

Take a look at Jane’s communication with her boss.



  • Be aware that many organizations may have flat organizational structures: In recent years, there has been shift away from a more traditional hierarchy towards teamwork. It’s becoming more common, for example, for a director to solicit feedback from an entry-level employee.  It’s expected that you form collegial relationships with your managers and co-workers. You may have noticed that in many of your classes in college or university, your instructors regularly seek feedback from students and that assignments may require teamwork.

Questions to Reflect on:

  1. How well would you/ have you worked in a flatter organizational structure?
  2. What could you do to be more effective within a flatter organizational structure?
  • Understand that Canadian organizations are often less formal than they are in some other countries: This will vary, but for the most part company cultures in Canada tend to be more informal than they are in many other parts of the world. For example, the dress code may be more relaxed or you may be encouraged to call the company president by their first name.  The best approach is to watch what everyone else is doing and follow their lead. Adopting a casual approach still requires that colleagues demonstrate respectful behaviour.

Questions to Reflect on:

  1. What are your expectations when it comes to the level of formality on the job?
  2. Are you comfortable calling your boss by their first name?
  • Know that you are responsible for a particular process and/or outcomes:  In many jobs, your manager will tell you what they expect from you right from the start. For example, a salesperson may be given a target for the month. They may not care how you do it, but you’ll be held accountable if you’re not meeting expectations.

Question to Reflect on:

  1. What might be an example of a process and/or outcome you would be responsible for in your own field?
  • Recognize that employers value initiative:  In today’s fast-moving environment, managers value proactive employees. If you see a problem, instead of rushing to alert your manager, use your judgment and try to determine if it’s something that you can solve on your own. Also, once you’re comfortable with your work priorities and time management, think about whether there are any projects or resources that you could work on to benefit your team and add to your accomplishments. Remember that individual contribution is valued even in contexts where you’re expected to work in a team.

Questions to Reflect on:

  1. Have you taken initiative at school, in a volunteer position, in an extra-curricular activity or on the job?
  2. Do you already excel at taking initiative or is it a skill you could improve on?
  • Project a positive attitude: Being a positive team player is often valued just as much as being competent in your job. No one wants to be around negative people and being positive plays a major role in both the hiring process and in assessing job performance. Instead of complaining, offer possible solutions.

Questions to Reflect on:

  1. Do you tend to me more of an optimistic or pessimistic person? A positive or negative person?
  2. If you tend to be more negative, how can you ensure your negativity doesn’t impact your job performance?

Take a look at what some international students at Simon Fraser University have to say about Canadian workplace culture.



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