New skills for a multi-cultural city

LANA HART
Last updated 07:39 18/11/2013

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OPINION: As the workforce in Christchurch changes, it's important to understand how cultural differences shape workplace behaviour, writes LANA HART.

Christchurch is changing. A family wearing bright headscarves walks through my tree-lined street, with Canterbury's nor'westerly flying the cloths behind them like kites.

A German sourdough friendship cake - which grows then gets divided and shared - makes its way through the kitchens of our neighbourhood, initiated by a new European family.

Children from all corners of the world now pass through the local school's gates, a new flag representing the student population added each month.

Closer to the CBD, construction and road repair sites teem with visible migrants, watering holes - not just of the Irish variety - hum with foreign accents, and churches enjoy a renaissance of activity, fuelled by the hundreds of newly arrived Catholic and Baptist Filipinos.

The 2753 permanent and long-term arrivals to Canterbury from 2012-2013 are here, along with their partners and kids.

Many thousands more are now arriving or are on their way, as rebuild-related companies actively recruit engineers, project managers, and builders from such far-reaching places as Argentina, Macedonia, and Namibia.

Christchurch will never again be the same, so understandings are now required about how Kiwi workplaces are different from the cultures from which we bring skilled migrants. Work communication styles may also need adapting to accommodate a broad diversity of people.

For example, informality is a hallmark of our Kiwi workplaces. We don't dress as smartly as most cultures when we go to the office, we have a slight disregard for punctuality, and we tend to treat most people at work as equals rather than seniors or subordinates.

Most Kiwis talk to the boss in a casual way ("How was your weekend?"), challenge their views where appropriate and can complain about some aspects of the work environment, either informally amongst our peers or formally through the organisation's complaints mechanisms.

This is not the case in the home countries of our most common migrant groups. In the Philippines, India, China, and even Great Britain work cultures are noticeably more hierarchical and status is more highly valued.

Managers in some of these countries tend to speak to employees in a very direct manner and discourage informal talk at work.

International staff working in Christchurch's businesses generally enjoy the egalitarian nature of our workplaces, but they can also be uncertain at first about lines of authority, how to address colleagues, dress codes, and what is appropriate workplace conversation about personal matters such as weekend activities and family members.

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The way Kiwis manage staff and give instructions can also be dramatically different for new arrivals.

New Zealand has the smallest population size of all the key migrant groups' source countries, so Kiwi workers tend to be good at a wide range of work tasks. We are great generalists and expect our No 8 wire mentality to help us find pragmatic solutions to most problems.

The world's two largest countries, however, provide thousands of highly skilled and specialised migrants with many years of work experience to New Zealand each year. Ask these newcomers to step outside their reasonably narrow area of expertise and you may find that they become uncomfortable working across a variety of work areas.

New Zealanders value the relationships we foster at work. We don't like to offend others or assert ourselves too strongly so we tend to use "softeners" in our requests, such as "I wonder if we could . . ." or "Do you think you could . . .".

After learning more literal and direct English, many migrants find these softened or tentative requests confusing and may not be sure what is expected of them.

As a work colleague to a new migrant, it's important to understand how cultural differences shape workplace behaviour, and how some of the features of the Kiwi work culture may be baffling to international staff.

Providing settlement and cultural information about life in New Zealand - and being curious about life in their home country - can go a long way to helping new migrants quickly adjust to our unique workplaces. This support will also improve the chances that they'll stay in Christchurch.

Canterbury's response to the disaster in the Philippines last week is testimony to the way in which migration is changing us.

Instead of being consigned to page 7 of the newspapers and featured only on BBC World, the story of Typhoon Haiyan belongs to Christchurch too, because now we know some of the people whose lives are directly affected.

They are the people who are part of the teams repairing our homes, the nurses and carers looking after our elderly parents, and the dairy workers on which we rely for both our daily supply and sustaining our strong agricultural contribution to the national economy.

As we watch the disaster unfold through our media, we learn more about the country that is providing more migrant staff to our city than any other country in the world.

As my neighbourhood and workplace changes, yours will too. Understanding the ways in which our Kiwi culture is at once inviting and strange to new migrants is an important step in transforming Christchurch into the multi- cultural city that it is becoming.

Lana Hart is the Settlement Support Co-ordinator at the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce. Settlement Support is an Immigration New Zealand programme which provides settlement information and advice to new migrants and their employers.

A seminar on employing skilled migrants, for employers in sectors experiencing high growth or skills shortages, is to be provided by Settlement Support and Lane Neave Lawyers. It will be held tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov 19, from 5.30pm-7.00pm at the Westpac Business and Community Hub, 55 Jack Hinton Drive, Addington (next to CBS Arena). Those interested can register at registrations@cecc.org.nz

- The Press

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