Canadian Consulting Engineer

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Employment: Subtle Messages

It was clearly an unsafe situation. Jack (not his real name), a geotechnical engineer who had recently immigrated from China, believed that the work crew shouldn’t be operating in that part of the open pit mine after dark.


It was clearly an unsafe situation. Jack (not his real name), a geotechnical engineer who had recently immigrated from China, believed that the work crew shouldn’t be operating in that part of the open pit mine after dark.

So although he works in the mine’s Technical department and only observes the daily activities of the Operations department employees in the work crew, Jack “told” the crew that they shouldn’t be working there.

They interpreted this as an order, and later the crew’s supervisor sent an e-mail to Jack’s manager, who in turn sent Jack a message saying he should not be giving orders to his department’s employees.

The above is a typical situation faced by companies who hire internationally educated professionals (IEPs). They value the technical skills that employees like Jack bring to the team, and in many cases these professionals speak English well.

However, an IEP’s lack of understanding of both explicit and implicit cultural behaviour, values and expectations — conveyed through verbal and non-verbal communication — often limits their effectiveness.

Choosing the right words

and the right tone

It was not just what Jack said to the crew that night, but how he said it that caused the problem. Had he used words like “I don’t think you should work here after dark” and provided a reason — the risk of injury from a rock fall — his message might not have been perceived as an order.

Also, his tone of voice affected how his message was interpreted. It’s also important to avoid confrontation in written communications. Soon after this incident, Jack wrote to his supervisor to complain that he had been accused of giving the workers an order. His tone was not conciliatory — he did not concede that what he said, or how it was said, might have been interpreted as an order.

It was later explained to him by a language tutor that while directness in speech and writing are valued in the Canadian workplace, in this case he should have softened his message. He should have begun with an unbiased description of the situation, including the risks of working in the area at night.

Missed cues in non-verbal communication

Most of the messages we convey are non-verbal, which include facial expressions, body gestures, posture and eye contact, as well as tone of voice and intonation. IEPs may misinterpret or miss these non-verbal cues.

Another internationally trained engineer was asked in a job interview why he thought the company should hire him. Not only did he not answer the question directly, he went on at great length about how he had worked with high-voltage power lines. He missed the shifts in body posture and disinterested looks on the faces of the others as they checked their watches and smart phones.

Appropriate use of

outside support

Many internationally trained engineers are strongly motivated to do good work. They find it frustrating when they think they have said or written the right thing, only to find out that it has caused misunderstanding and damaged a relationships. Employers, too, become frustrated if some of their employees are not as effective as they could be, and so they neither promote those employees to leadership positions, nor ask them to make presentations to senior management or clients.

Sometimes, supervisors and fellow employees will help an IEP understand how to communicate. But they rarely have the skills or patience to do this effectively.

A more practical solution is to provide IEPs with language and workplace-skills training. A number of organizations provide workplace language courses. Among them is WLT, based in Ottawa and ILSC–Canada in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Ryerson University in Toronto offers courses for international professionals in its Workplace Communication in Canada program. All teachers of business English in Canada must have a certificate from TESL Canada or TESL Ontario. Sending IEPs on formal training programs or bringing in a qualified tutor or teacher can be a worthwhile investment that helps them maximize their effectiveness, smoothes relationships, and will help you retain good employees.cce

Marjorie Friesen is a qualified English as a Second Language instructor based in Toronto. E-mail marjfri@rogers.com.