Business Etiquette in Canada: An Outsider’s Guide

Skyline of Toronto in Canada

If you are planning to conduct business overseas, either through a partnership agreement or by physically relocating your operations, then it is hugely important to understand the culture and practices of your target region. In a best-case scenario, you may end up committing a small faux-pas that highlights your status as an outsider; at worst, however, you may end up sabotaging your entire business operations, either through ignorance, insensitivity, or a combination of the two.

Given its high score on numerous ‘ease of doing business’ indexes, one such region may well be Canada. As a close cultural and geographical neighbour to the United States, many entrepreneurs think that if they understand business in the US, then they will understand business in Canada. Yet, while the two countries do share many similarities, there are some critical differences in Canadian business culture that you should be well aware of.

Therefore, if you are planning on doing business in Canada, it's wise to get a firm grasp of the country's assorted business practices. To that end, here are eight things you need to know about Canadian business etiquette.

1. Canadians Are Not Americans

Let us start by unravelling the first major pitfall that many global business owners fall into – that Canadians and Americans are one and the same. Not only is this sentiment inaccurate, but it can also be offensive to Canadians.

This is not to say that most Canadians dislike their US counterparts, of course; the two countries enjoy excellent business and social relationships. However, as in the US, Canadians take great pride in their autonomy and distinct provincial cultures. Taking the time to understand these differences and demonstrating your appreciation for them will undoubtedly be to your benefit.

2. Canada is a Provincial Country

As mentioned, Canada is divided into ten provinces (with an additional three territories). As such, you need to understand that various parts of the country will have their own unique regional traits.

For instance, Canadians from the Pacific ocean-bordered territory of British Columbia generally tend to have similar personality traits to those in the northwestern US states, such as Washington and Oregon. However, in Manitoba, you'd be more likely to encounter a more rural culture.

Likewise, Canadians who live in Ontario – one of the biggest business hubs in the country – are generally perceived as being more conservative and business-oriented. Quebec, on the other hand, is the centre of French-Canadian culture and is known for its fiercely independent identity and spirit.

3. Canada Has Two Languages

Which brings us to the next key point: the regional differences of Canada don't just extend to geographical borders, but language ones, too. Although, as mentioned, Quebec is the epicentre of French-Canada, native-born Canadians are required to learn both languages in school regardless of their provincial background.

While English is generally considered the global business language – and the majority of Canadians speak it fluently – it's worth keeping this in mind, especially if you are conducting business in Quebec. Many Quebecois organisations prefer to communicate in French, so you may require an interpreter if you do not already speak it.

In fact, if you are planning to cultivate a long-term partnership or presence in the region, then it is advised that you either learn French, or have your interests there managed by someone that knows the language and the culture. The importance of this cannot be overstated; Quebec has undertaken two independence referendums in living memory, the most recent of which in 1995 failed by just 1%. Therefore, you should be aware of the strength of feeling around this issue, particularly in primarily French-speaking areas.

You can also consider printing your business cards in both languages to make a good first impression.

4. It is an Employee-Friendly Country

Employee rights tend to be more generous in Canada than in many other parts of the world. While a portion of this is cultural, much of it is also dictated by law, meaning that you might have to get used to making concessions for your workforce that may not apply in other nations.

As a potential employer, some of the key things to be aware of are:

  • The Work Week – The average Canadian work week is between 36 and 40 hours, which is in line with most Western economies.
  • Vacation Time – According to Canadian labour law, employees are entitled to two full weeks of vacation per year, jumping up to three weeks after five years with the same employer, and four weeks after ten years.
  • Parental Leave – Mothers are entitled to up to 15 weeks paid time off (there are slight variations for adoptees and residents of Quebec). Parental benefits are offered for either 35 weeks at 55% of insurable earnings (up to a maximum of $573 per week), or for 61 weeks at 33% of insurable earnings.
  • Breaks – Employees are required to take a break of at least 30 minutes or every five hours worked, and must take at least one 24-hour break once a week.

5. Business Communication is Traditional...

Business etiquette in Canada involves many of the same communicative traditions that are standard in the professional world; a strong handshake is just as respected in Canada as it would be in, say, a US business environment. However, while there are parts of French-Canada where the custom of exchanging a kiss on the cheek is not uncommon, it is rarely employed in a professional environment.

Eye contact is also important to Canadians – especially business professionals. Failing to maintain eye contact can be interpreted as boredom, disinterest or even dishonesty. Generally, most people are comfortable engaging in conversation about half a metre apart.

6. ...as are Dress Codes 

Canadian business professionals tend to dress conservatively, although it's worth noting that the country experiences severe seasonal weather patterns that inhabitants dress for accordingly.

In addition, as with most countries, there are different dress standards for different industries. For example, rural sectors in Canada tend to have a more relaxed dress code in the same way that technology companies in the US often allow for more informal dress standards.

7. Punctuality is a Core Part of Canadian Business Etiquette

If you want your business dealings in Canada to be a success, then you should make a habit of being punctual; certainly do not expect the other party to wait for more than ten to 15 minutes beyond your scheduled meeting time. Honouring your commitments counts for a lot in Canadian business customs, so return phone calls and do not make the other party feel like their time is being wasted.

The same concept applies in personal interactions, for that matter. Meetings should be set up in advance, and it is seen as a faux-pas to arrive without a specific invite. If you think you are going to be significantly late for something, make an effort to get a hold of the people you are meeting and reschedule or explain your delay.

8. Canadian Meetings are Group-Oriented

One final notable Canadian business custom is related to how meetings tend to work. In general, Canadian culture is more group-oriented than other countries; meetings tend to be based on consensus and equality of speaking time. Everyone present at the meeting will expect to have their say, with the overall goal of finding the most agreeable and positive decision.

Indeed, this democratic approach influences Canadian management styles. If you are more of an authoritarian leader, you may encounter problems when dealing with Canadian staff which can, in turn, hinder productivity and morale. Therefore, you should either adopt your approach accordingly or be prepared to change it altogether.

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Canadian business etiquette is relatively similar to that found in most Western countries, with a few subtle differences. If you are planning on conducting long-term operations in Quebec, however, then it's important to learn a little French and take the time to understand the social, cultural and political background of that province.

Other than that, take the time to brush up on and understand Canadian labour law, identify the various provincial differences in a business and marketing context, and conduct the same location research that you would in any other city or country. Canada is a famously friendly country, so there's no reason why your business operations cannot be a success there!

In the meantime, if you are planning on setting up business in the country, then we can assist in the formation of a Quebec corporation!

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