Considering the importance of communication as a performance driver for employee engagement, plan sponsors with culturally diverse workplaces should give special consideration to the language they use to communicate with their plan members.

New Canadians often have language comprehension challenges, so trying to explain a benefits program to these employees will be especially difficult. The technical and legal jargon found in plan booklets and other information including claim forms may need to be presented in simpler terms to be understood by employees who are new Canadians.  Additionally, the context in which these individuals understand specific benefits may differ. In a number of European countries, for example, businesses close for weeks at a time in the summer. A new employee from Europe might be thinking about your vacation benefit in terms of blocks of times rather than a total number of days that can be taken throughout the year.

Enrolment forms, plan information, employee booklets, policies and procedures could be supplemented by guides or fact sheets that are written in plain language, translated into languages other than English or French, or include a graphic representation of concepts. One plan sponsor that held a flex plan re-enrollment session used grocery shopping as a metaphor for making flex plan choices, with great success. You may also wish to create a glossary of benefits terms that your new employee or their family members can refer to when needed.

Provide materials using a variety of media, so that your new employee can access information by the means with which they feel most comfortable. For example, when introducing benefits plan changes to employees, one plan sponsor distributed information both in print and on the company intranet site, and placed tent cards summarizing the changes and the timeline in the lunch room, encouraging employees to discuss the information with their peers.

If your plan includes choices and you use case studies or examples to help your employees make decisions about their benefits, ensure these examples are culturally sensitive and reflect your diverse workplace.

When communicating with new employees, try to put aside your own perceptions about familiar concepts. One plan sponsor discovered that an employee had included their grandmother and uncle as dependents on her benefits plan forms, as they all lived together in one home and financially supported one another. The plan sponsor had not spent much time explaining what a dependent was under the plan, believing that was a concept which was universally understood.

Remember that those of us who have been raised in Western culture tend to have a more direct, precise and blunt communications style. For example, we read silence as lack of understanding or disagreement. But in many cultures, silence is simply thoughtfulness or time to consider a response. Anticipate that your new employee’s non-verbal communication and communication style may be different that yours, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Many employers also find the use of “cultural ambassadors” helpful. These are other employees who share the culture and language of the new employee, and can therefore act as an interpreter and liaison between your new employee and your organization. Many organizations leverage these types of connections beyond the orientation stage as mentoring relationships for new employees, helping them not only learn about the company’s culture, but also the intangibles that will help them be successful in a Canadian workplace.

If your organization includes an employee assistance program (EAP) as part of the benefits offering, your EAP provider may be able to provide support to both you and your employees in understanding and communicating when there are cross-cultural differences. Check with your provider to see what sorts of cross-cultural services are available to the people leaders in your organization.

Lastly, it is useful to follow up with a new employee after he or she has had time to reflect and talk to family members or friends to review their understanding of information presented to them. Whenever possible, this follow up should be done face to face. This proactive approach can go a long way to helping your new employee feel welcome, get accustomed to the culture of your organization and avoiding misunderstandings before they happen.

Kim Siddall is a principal with AQ Group Solutions.

Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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