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RCMP Const. Tiffany Miller shares a laugh with students of the English for Skilled Immigrants program, Yan Jin, centre left, Mehar Halepola, right and instructor Sandra Bessey, in Fort McMurray, Alta. The course opens the door on Canadian customs and culture through everyday events for doctors, lawyers, and engineers who have travelled to Fort McMurray from across the world.Carl Patzel/The Canadian Press

Marie Bountrogianni is always on time. And as the Dean of Ryerson's Chang School of Continuing Education, if she schedules a meeting for 9 a.m. she expects that everyone be there on the dot.

"I know that sounds obvious, but in some cultures a schedule is a suggestion," she says.

Newcomers to Canada often have the technical skills required to do their jobs, but can face challenges integrating into the work force because of cultural differences in workplace interactions.

Common business practices such as keeping eye contact and having a firm handshake are far from universal across cultures. And many workplace misunderstandings can be prevented by simply teaching people the appropriate ways of addressing and interacting with their colleagues, Ms. Bountrogianni says.

As for the work force, the signs of growing diversity are clear: It's estimated that by 2031, one in three workers in Canada will not have been born here, Ms. Bountrogianni says.

The challenge is that many newcomers aren't prepared to adapt to working conventions once they get here.

In Canada, for instance, being late, soft-spoken, or politically incorrect can alienate you from your team, Ms. Bountrogianni says.

Feedback is another. "We give feedback here to employees as part of the natural course of training and evaluating; in some cultures that might be seen as discipline," she says.

Ms. Bountnrogianni says if newcomers had this knowledge before they came it would give them time to digest it and better integrate at work.

Indeed, it's not just underemployed and struggling employees signing up to learn these Canadian subtleties. Employers, too, are increasingly realizing the value in sending their staff to this kind of integration training.

Richmond Hill, Ont.-based hospital equipment supplier Amico sends their managers to Ryerson's program for new workers in Canada, and the university also has a contract with the Bombay Stock Exchange for those who want to immigrate to Canada and those who want to do business with the Western world.

And then there's the flip side: As much as integration training promotes productive work among diverse teams, it also benefits companies who serve diverse clients.

"If you're going to be operating in some culture somewhere in the world, you can actually hire people to work for you who are knowledgeable about that cultural experience and speak the local language," said Dan Ondrack, an international business professor at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management.

But while workplace diversity gives Canadian businesses a big advantage when dealing with international trade or international marketing, Prof. Ondrack says, it also raises an important question: Should Canadian companies force their own corporate culture onto those they do business with or be flexible when they encounter cultural differences?

A prime example came when Prof. Ondrack helped a Canadian employer open a factory in Mexico: The Canadian management style of encouraging group decision-making and employee participation didn't fly with the Mexican employees.

"They completely refused to accept [the Canadian style] because in Mexican culture, the boss is the boss, and people do what they're told," he said. That's the dilemma. And Prof. Ondrack doesn't have an answer.

Most crucially, though, integration training helps people understand each other, build good relationships and address conflict through mediation and negotiation, Ms. Bountrogianni says.

"Most of our Canadian immigrants right now are educated, they're raring to go contribute in a high-quality way," she said. "The faster that we can help them integrate and work successfully, the better it will be for our economy."

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