Even after 15 years, newcomers tend to display values that are notably different

Financial Post
December 09, 2008

Vas Taras
Haskayne School of Business

Thousands of studies and practical experience have demonstrated that culture-sensitive HR management practices improve performance in the modern, diverse workplace. Due to cultural differences, management methods that work well in Calgary will not be as effective in Beijing.

It is well known what management practices are effective in different parts of the world. But how about managing immigrants? What is the optimal approach to an employee who, for example, grew up in China and immigrated to Canada 10 years ago? Should it be assumed that the person still has Chinese cultural values, or should it be expected that the person has been Canadianized? How long does it take for an immigrant employee to acculturate? What are the factors that can speed up or slow down the acculturation pace?

A recent University of Calgary study addressed these questions by exploring the pace, extent and predictors of acculturation. Close to two thousand immigrant employees from Calgary participated in the research project. The focus of the study was on acculturation of work-related values that govern individual behaviour in the workplace.

The recently released findings indicate that acculturation is a slow, non-linear process. Supporting some earlier acculturation theories, it was observed that immigrant workers experience a brief “honeymoon” period that lasts a few weeks to a couple of months. At this stage, newcomers appear to perceive the Canadian business culture only positively; they readily embrace is and try to assimilate.

The very brief “honeymoon” with the host culture is followed by a period of negative value acculturation that lasts for one to two years. This stage, often referred to as “cultural affirmation,” is characterized by an intense cultural shock and the observed initial rejection of culture of the host society and is believed to be a coping mechanism for dealing with the unknown foreign world.

In their second or third year after their arrival in Canada, immigrants adapt to the challenges of living in a new society and enter a stage of a steady, gradual acculturation and internalization of local values and practices. However, the process is very slow and the extent of value assimilation is practically negligible in the first decade. The data show that even after 15 years, immigrants tend to display values that are notably different from those of Canadians. Only about 20 years after immigration do the differences in values of Canadians and immigrants become minor, yet most immigrants do not assimilate completely even two decades after immigration.

In addition to values, visible attributes of acculturation, such as English proficiency, preference for local cuisine, music, clothing style and media were also measured to test whether value acculturation could be predicted based on observable elements of culture. The data show only a weak relationship between values and visible elements of culture, suggesting that not every international who is proficient in English likes local food, music and television and also thinks like a local. And vice- versa: Not everyone who looks different has different values.

Probably the most important and practical finding of the study relates to the importance of contacts between immigrants and locals. The results showed that a lack of interaction with representatives of the host culture may not only slow down the acculturation process, but can even reverse it. Immigrant employees who reported being at odds with Western business culture and displayed values drastically different from those of locals were the ones who reported a very limited contact with Canadians. Virtually all respondents who reported that Canadians constitute less than 10% in their social networks displayed negative acculturation. In terms of specific numbers, the probability of rejection of local culture is twice as high if Canadians constitute 15% of the people with whom immigrants interact on a regular basis at work or at home, compared with the sample average of 45%.

The finding highlights the danger of ethnic segregation, be it in the form of mono-ethnic work groups or residential ethnic ghettoes. The lesson for practitioner managers and immigration policymakers is clear – promote interaction among locals and new Canadians in the workplace. If contact between the two groups is limited, over time people may actually grow apart, become less tolerant and accepting of each other and poison the work environment.

Vas Taras obtained his PhD in HR and Organizational Dynamics from the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

Reference: Financial Post