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Success At Work

Canadian workplace culture

Canadian workplace culture

Working in Canada

Company culture varies widely depending on the industry or the organization. Make an effort to research and ask any questions you may have regarding a company’s formal policies and procedures – they can be informative. There will also be “unwritten rules” or norms in the workplace which can be learned by observing others or asking about once you feel more comfortable.

The following are general guidelines to help you navigate workplaces in Canada.


Everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to personal space so it’s important to be aware of this and do your best not to violate someone’s space. It is good practice to keep about an arm’s length distance away from your coworkers. If you stand any closer than this, it may make others uncomfortable. It can be difficult to determine where someone’s personal space begins but generally, personal space can be divided into four categories - intimate, personal, social, and public. One way you can be mindful of someone’s personal space is to pay attention to any cues they may be giving you. For example, if you notice that someone takes a few steps backwards when they are having a conversation with you, avoid stepping forward to close the gap. This may be their way of telling you that you have left their social space and have entered into their personal space.

A helpful general rule is to try and stand about 3 feet (or an arm’s length) away from someone when speaking to them in-person.

And don’t forget about your own personal space when interacting with others in the workplace. Set your boundary in a way that feels comfortable for you. You may choose to: tell the person directly that you prefer more social space, sit down, take a few steps to add distance, use hand gestures or create a physical barrier by standing behind a desk. It’s your space, it’s up to you.

The use of eye contact is a difficult behaviour to provide general advice on. The reason for this is because it can vary greatly across cultures, gender identities, religions and personalities. Comfort with eye contact can also vary significantly between neurotypical and neurodiverse people.

Keep in mind that in North America, avoiding eye contact is still often considered a sign of disrespect or dishonesty. Though we know that this isn’t always true, if you are uncomfortable making eye contact, here are a few strategies you could try:

  • practice with someone you feel safe with
  • focus on different areas of the face (e.g., top of the nose, around the eyes)
  • use active listening techniques such as nodding to show you are engaged and interested in the conversation
  • use a 3-5 second rule - give yourself permission to make eye contact for only 3-5 seconds before looking away

If you still find making eye contact difficult or uncomfortable, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You can slowly and gradually increase your comfort level by practicing with a strategy that works best for you.

In North America, shaking hands is a common professional greeting when you are being introduced to someone or meeting someone for the first time. Shaking hands may not be an acceptable practice for some people due to cultural or religious reasons, personal space considerations or due to fear of spreading illness.

If someone chooses not to shake your hand, do not take offense. Politely adapt your own greeting to the situation.

If someone extends their hand but you prefer an alternative greeting, consider how to react in a polite way that’s comfortable for you and practice it.

One approach might be to put your right hand to your chest and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands, but it’s a pleasure to meet you”, or alternatively, “I’m sorry, I’ve been sick, and I want to be extra careful not to spread it”.

Depending on the situation, some other alternatives for shaking hands include:

  • fist or elbow bump
  • nod and friendly smile
  • hand wave

Ideally employers should promote an inclusive dress code policy. An inclusive dress code policy would, for example, not require particular clothing based on gender or gender identity and would be inclusive of clothing from a variety of cultures and religions as well as diverse hairstyles.

If you have specific concerns about an organization’s dress code, feel free to ask about it before accepting the job offer. You may place a strong value on working for a company with an inclusive dress code policy and your decision to accept or remain in a job may be strongly influenced by this. Your decision may also depend on your personal, financial or other circumstances.

Identify if your company has a formal, written dress code policy as well as observe what others are wearing to figure out the company’s norms. You could do this by visiting the work site or by searching for photos from company events posted on their website or on their social media accounts. Remember that it is okay to ask your new manager or colleagues, even before you start, about the dress code so you can show up feeling confident. If in doubt, dress professionally for your first day and adjust as appropriate.

Scents in the workplace refers to smells or odours from ingredients and chemicals in certain cosmetic, body care and cleaning products. These additives are also referred to as “fragrances”. Some workplaces are scent-free, meaning they require staff and clients to refrain from using personal care and other products that contain scents or fragrance (e.g., perfume, deodorant). The health and safety of employees and clients is the main reason employers choose to implement a scent-free workplace policy.

Scents can cause a negative impact in the workplace in the following ways:

  • Health: may trigger allergies and sensitivities that cause symptoms such as headaches, nausea and fatigue
  • Productivity: strong scents can cause some individuals to become distracted, affecting their productivity
  • Safety: in some workplaces, scents can interfere with the detection of harmful chemicals and may impact the performance of sensitive machinery
  • Professionalism: in some professions strong scents may be perceived as showing a lack of respect for clients, patients or colleagues

Inquire as to whether your organization has a scent-free policy before starting your new job. If doing so is not possible, err on the side of caution and avoid using strong scents/fragrances on your first day.

If you would like to learn more about scent-free policies, please visit the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety programs webpage.

Be prepared to greet your coworkers with a “hello” or a “good morning!” if you pass by them in the halls or when you first get settled into your workplace in the morning. When you leave work, it is also polite to say “goodbye” or “have a good evening” to your coworkers.

It is fairly common for these interactions to lead to small talk: “how was your weekend?” or “do you have any plans for the holidays?” Be prepared to answer and reciprocate the question.

Spending a few minutes chatting at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day is commonly acceptable. Talking for long periods of time in the middle of the day may be interpreted as unproductive or not having enough work.

Acceptable Small Talk Topics Small Talk Topics to Avoid
Current events (positive/non-political)
Industry talk
Styles and trends
Weekend plans/activities
Salary/Finances/Spending habits
Inappropriate or offensive jokes
Questions about personal relationships

In general, workplaces are casual. You can usually address your coworkers and managers by their first name. The exception will be when you introduce someone: you will want to use their first and last name. For example: “Susan, I would like for you to meet Erica Chan, Director of Marketing”.

In certain formal situations or when meeting members of an executive team or government officials, use the individual’s title and family name when addressing them (Ms. Chan).

Collaboration is an expectation in many workplaces. While it can feel like you should “know everything”, do your best to ask questions if you need something clarified. It’s better to clarify and ask than to make assumptions or proceed without the helpful information you need. When you have been in the workplace long enough to understand the norms and reasons more fully behind how and why certain things are done, then it may be appropriate to offer your opinion and ideas to your team or manager. Asking questions and contributing your ideas shows that you are engaged and eager to contribute.

Being on time for the start of your workday and for other work commitments (such as meetings) can demonstrate that you are reliable, respectful, and can manage your time effectively. However, most of us have arrived late to something important for a valid reason. Life happens! If you are going to be late for the start of your workday or a meeting, it’s good practice to inform your manager or whomever you’re meeting with as soon as possible.

Before starting your new job make sure to discuss the expected working hours with your employer. Standard working hours can vary greatly between industries and organizations. We also recommend that you discuss any flexibility in your working hours with your employer. This flexibility may include lieu hours, overtime pay or adjusted working hours.

You are likely to receive on-the-job evaluations. It is also fairly common to get formal and informal constructive feedback. Welcome the feedback, proactively reflect on it, and use it to improve your performance as well as your self-confidence.

The landscape of work is changing. The fourth industrial revolution brings a technological revolution, characterized by AI, robotics, automation and the ‘gig’ economy. What influence will this have on the Canadian workplace culture? When and how can you participate in small talk during a digital meeting? How can you build trust and meaningful relationships through digital platforms, and demonstrate job loyalty when part of a transient workforce? To explore some effects, the fourth industrial revolution will have on the future of work and what you can do to begin to prepare, visit UWaterloo’s Future Ready Talent Framework (FRTF). The FRTF is a research–backed tool to help understand the key competencies we can use to navigate the future of work and learning.

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development