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DiversityWorkplace

Inclusive career advancement for immigrant employee retention 

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As the labour market becomes increasingly diverse, organizations need to reconsider how they engage and retain employees. Immigration now accounts for almost all of Canada’s labour force growth, yet the underutilization of immigrant skills persists.  

Statistics Canada data shows that in 2021, more than a quarter of immigrants with post-secondary degrees obtained abroad worked in jobs requiring no more than a high school diploma. That was double the overqualification rate for Canadian-born or Canadian-educated degree holders. 

Even when immigrants land work matched with their skills and experience, they may face challenges getting ahead. In the Toronto region – where immigrants account for half of the core-age labour force and where Canada’s business headquarters are largely concentrated – only about 6% of executives at leading organizations are immigrants. 


This article is the first in a CareerWise series on Culturally Responsive Career Development. Watch for more on this topic in the coming days. 


Underemployment undermines the long-term career trajectories, earnings and life satisfaction of immigrants. It also risks increasing the turnover rate for business and hurts our economy, with as much as $50 billion in real GDP forgone annually by not bringing immigrants up to the employment and wage levels of Canadian-born workers, according to RBC. 

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One group of people can help. As the gatekeepers to employment, managers and leaders play a crucial role in ensuring that successful workforce integration is attainable for all newcomers. To do this, they need the skills, knowledge and motivation to act more inclusively.  

At the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), we’ve been working with employers to strengthen workplace practices through our Career Advancement for Immigrant Professionals (CAIP) program, funded by Future Skills Centre. Since 2021, a total of 144 managers and newcomer employees across five large national employers in a variety of sectors (finance, telecommunications, retail, recruitment and marketing) have participated in the program.  

We’ve learned that differences in cultural norms around work can play out in ways that thwart newcomers’ career progression. Open dialogue between managers and newcomers can help. 

The cultural divide 

Culture and lived experience influence the ways people view professional advancement. At one organization we worked with, a newcomer participant shared that while he was happy to be working in his field, he had been increasingly frustrated as teammates in the same role won promotions and, after several years, he was the only original team member. Though he was a strong performer and understood how to interview well, he also knew that there was something more to getting promoted that he could not put his finger on.  

He wasn’t alone in his experience. Many newcomers came into the program thinking that performing well and completing courses was sufficient for advancement. For the most part, they weren’t familiar with their employers’ formal career processes. Often, newcomer participants hadn’t initiated career-goal conversations with their managers or asked for opportunities to develop and demonstrate skills for their next role. In a different cultural context, where employees must wait to be approached about promotions, taking the lead would have jeopardized their prospects. Newcomers also overlooked the importance of proposing new ideas, social capital, visibility and having a broad understanding of how their department and organization works. 

Though he was a strong performer and understood how to interview well, he also knew that there was something more to getting promoted that he could not put his finger on.”

At the same time, managers were often unaware of any gaps between newcomers’ aspirations and their current situations. Many managers reported feeling unprepared to assist newcomer team members with career advancement. Instead of engaging in discussions with their newcomer team members on this matter; they tended to rely on biases and assumptions. Managers would assume that immigrant team members who did not initiate conversations about professional goals lacked interest in advancing. Many also judged quietness and reservations in expressing enthusiasm as equating to a lack of confidence and interest in leadership positions. Additionally, we heard from managers and leaders that differences in communication styles are often conflated with English fluency, which affects their perceptions of immigrants’ potential.  

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The work of improving workplace inclusion must be led by managers, with the support of their senior leadership. (iStock)
Leveraging the power of dialogue to drive action 

The CAIP program uses the power of dialogue to bridge the gap between managers and their newcomer employees and promote inclusion, engagement and retention. This involves: 

  1. Getting curious: Simply telling managers about cultural differences and how diversity and inclusion lead to business benefits doesn’t build empathy or motivate change; conversations do. Managers must be curious about newcomer team members’ past experiences with career mobility processes and employees’ assumptions about career progression with their current employer. Many managers in the CAIP program discovered that in-depth discussions are essential for arriving at a new level of understanding with their newcomer employees.  
  2. Discussing what and how: Employers and managers also need to unpack their beliefs around who is a good candidate for promotion and re-evaluate what is really needed for employees to stand out. They must be able to offer concrete examples of both what employees need to do to position themselves for advancement and how. This includes demystifying what it means within their organization to “work hard,” “take initiative,” “own your career” and possess “soft skills.” 
  3. Having meaningful career-goal discussions: In many Canadian organizations, employees are expected to initiate discussions about professional development opportunities and promotions. This is not the norm in some parts of the world. Checking in with team members throughout the year on their aspirations and giving specific examples of what kinds of supports employees can ask of their managers can help normalize the sharing of career goals for newcomer employees. 
  4. Building intercultural competence: To effectively encourage and advocate for their team members, managers themselves must be supported. Intercultural competencies, skills to provide inclusive performance feedback and coaching, and clear and consistent communication about internal opportunities are all critical areas where managers need help.  
  5. Reviewing and communicating institutional process: Reviewing and updating institutional processes on career advancement based on dialogue with newcomer employees, and then communicating those changes across the organization, will lead to more successful actions taken by managers and newcomer employees.  

To attract and retain skilled immigrants, organizations have to do the work to create a foundation for their success. The work of improving workplace inclusion must be led by managers, with the support of their senior leadership. However, career professionals can also play a role in two important ways.  

  1. Career professionals can support newcomers with developing stronger self-awareness and knowledge of Canadian workplace culture as they seek to enter the job market.  
  2. Career professionals can advocate with employers to build inclusive workplaces based on needs identified by immigrant jobseekers and employees.  

By doing so, immigrants, businesses and our economy will see lasting benefits. 

Rachel Crowe is the Senior Project Manager for the CAIP program at TRIEC. Sugi Vasavithasan is TRIEC’s Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation. TRIEC is a non-profit organization that helps employers enrich their organizations with the skills and experience newcomers bring and supports immigrants secure work in their fields of expertise.
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Rachel Crowe is the Senior Project Manager for the CAIP program at TRIEC. Sugi Vasavithasan is TRIEC’s Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation. TRIEC is a non-profit organization that helps employers enrich their organizations with the skills and experience newcomers bring and supports immigrants secure work in their fields of expertise.
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