Last Updated: June 17, 2017

Cultural and religious sensitivities


Given a newcomer’s religious and/or cultural background, some areas of the employment discussion may require particular sensitivity – cultural humility, really. This means openly discussing differences between our cultures, without any judgement or intention to convey that Canadian culture is somehow better.


Below are some of the topics to consider.


Expectations of women working

Newcomer families may have specific beliefs and concerns about women working. There may even be different opinions within the same family. Those helping the family with their employment journey should be open to revisiting this topic periodically and having an open dialogue about financial realities and Canadian cultural attitudes around women working.


Working for a woman

For some men, the idea of working for, or under the supervision of, a woman may be unfamiliar and potentially concerning. This should be discussed and incorporated in the employment search.


Religious accommodation

Newcomers from different cultures and countries may have very different needs when it comes to religious accommodations.


Ontario employers are required to provide some religious accommodations for employees. The extent to which companies do this varies widely and this should be researched if it will be issue for the newcomer.


Also, the way in which members of various faith groups observe their religion at work can differ widely.  Once the newcomer’s desires and expectations with regard to religious accommodation at work have been discussed, those helping them can assist them in researching religious accommodations by sector or by employer. Another idea is to put newcomers in touch with individuals from their faith who have been working in Canada, to understand how they have managed religious accommodations.


Muslim observances that may affect work

The largest wave of newcomers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) over the past two years has been from Syria, a country with a diversity of religions and cultural practices.  It is important to note that although followers of Islam share a common religious faith, the population is not otherwise homogeneous, and can be very diverse in terms of culture and ethnicity.


That said, a large proportion of Syrian newcomers in the GTA are Muslim, so below are a few things to consider relative to that group.



Daily prayer

While devout Muslims pray five times a day, only one or two of these times (depending upon the time of year) fall within a normal workday in the GTA. The typical time taken for these prayers is between five and 10 minutes and formally involves the washing of hands each time.


Ideally, a quiet space will be available for prayer.


For some, ideal work hours on Fridays would accommodate a break or end time around noon, to accommodate prayer at a mosque close to work, between 12 and 2 pm.



2017: Began the evening of Friday, May 26 and ends Saturday, June 24


2018: Wednesday, May 16th to Thursday June 14th. (Each calendar year, the start of the holiday moves earlier by about 10 days, but may vary by a day, depending upon the first sighting of the moon.)


Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the month of fasting for Muslims. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam; the others are confession of faith, five daily prayers, Zakah (almsgiving) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah).


Muslims fast from early dawn to sunset every day throughout the month. The fast requires Muslims to abstain from food, drink, marital relations and ill-conduct during the fast.


The day of fasting begins after an early morning meal before dawn.


The evening activities include the traditional breaking of the fast usually with dates and water, the sunset prayer followed by dinner (Iftar). Some Muslims would then go to the mosque for congregational prayers in which at least one-thirtieth of the Qur’an is recited. The congregation thereby listens to the recitation of the complete Qur’an by the end of the month.


When Ramadan falls during the spring/summer months with long hours of daylight, the fast can be up to 18 hours long and sleeping hours can be reduced significantly. In addition, the observance of not drinking at all during the daytime fast should be taken into account when working outdoors or in warm environments in summer.


Potential accommodations or flexibility around Ramadan may be something to consider asking potential employers about.


For more information on Ramadan, see the website of Islamic Foundation of Toronto.



2017: Evening of Sunday, June 25, (after a confirmed sighting of the new moon). The holiday begins at sundown and continues until sundown of the next day.

2018: June 14-15.


Eid-al-Fitr is a holiday that marks the end of the thirty-day fast for Ramadan.


For Eid al-Fitr, most Canadian Muslims will take a day off from work and go to prayers held in mosques or Islamic centres, convention halls or sports arenas.


Many Muslims will visit each other’s homes on the Eid day or the days following to attend designated “open houses” in which everyone is welcome to visit. Children receive gifts or money, and sweets and tasty dishes are served throughout the day.


Smaller Muslim communities, particularly in the rural areas, hold other communal gatherings in mosques or rented community halls. Muslims also donate money or contribute to their local food banks on this day for those who are less fortunate.



2017: Friday, Sep 1, 2017 (depending upon the sighting of the moon.)

2018: Starts evening of Tuesday, August 21, 2018 (earlier each year by about 10 days.)


Eid al-Adha is a significant annual Islamic observance for many Muslims in Canada. It is also known as the Feast of Sacrifice or Festival of Sacrifice as it commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to God.


Eid al-Adha lasts several days and is a time marked by special prayers.  Many Muslims gather for special prayer services. Many people also visit family and friends, exchange greetings and gifts, and make donations to the poor and needy. Eid al-Adha is also a time for forgiveness and compassion.


The Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) holds Eid festivals to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. . Thousands of people, including key leaders, often attend these events. Some politicians publicly announce their best wishes to those celebrating Eid al-Adha. Festivities can last for up to a few days.


Eid al-Adha follows from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This pilgrimage applies to Muslims worldwide, as they are required to perform the Hajj once in their lives. Some Muslims in Canada may travel to Mecca prior to Eid al-Adha to make this pilgrimage. Eid al-Adha is known as the Feast of Sacrifice because it traditionally includes the sacrifice of an animal permitted for food (eg. a lamb) as an act of thanksgiving for God’s mercy. Some of the food is donated for charitable purposes.


Some Muslims may wish to request day(s) off to celebrate Eid-al-Adha.


For more information, see calendar.


Workplace clothing/attire

Many Muslim women dress modestly, which means they wear clothing that covers them from their chest/lower neck to their ankles.


Some Muslim women are hijabi, meaning that they choose to wear the Muslim head-covering known as hijab. This may be relevant when exploring work options which have head or hair covering requirements such as hair nets or safety head protection gear.


Other clothing observances or preferences may also exist for Muslim women, such as wearing an abaya or shalwar kameez or a burqua and/or Niqab. The latter two are not typically worn by women from Syria.


All of the above may impact employment options or preferences for women and should be thoroughly discussed.


For Muslim men, there may be facial hair observances (beards), but for men from Syria, these do not tend to impact work choices.


Customs around eating at work

Some newcomers practice cultural and religious observances concerning food. This may impact their willingness to do certain types of jobs or work in certain types of environments.

As well, newcomers may have experienced different workplace practices when it comes to meals at work. In some Middle Eastern countries, for example, it may be common for the employer to provide food for employees at lunchtime.  It should be explained that is not standard practice in Canada and that employees are responsible for bringing or purchasing their own meals when at work.


Not risking being offensive or impolite (e.g. asking questions)

In some cultures, it may be viewed as impolite to ask questions during job discussions or interviews. It can be helpful to explain that Canadian employers are open to questions and may, in fact, see them as indicative of a person’s interest in the job and the company.


Body language, touching and personal space

To help newcomers succeed in job interviews and on the job, it is useful to have frank discussions about how certain postures  and body language (for example, arms crossed, leaning back, “slouching”) are perceived in Canada. As well, customs regarding handshakes, appropriate personal space, handshakes and so on should be explored to understand differences and prepare for how things work in Canada.


The concept of customer service

Some newcomers may not have experience working in jobs where “the customer is always right.” An exploration of the concept and expectations around customer service in Canadian workplaces can be helpful in setting expectations.


Along the same lines, the concept of going above-and-beyond or being pro-active may not be familiar for newcomers, if they had previously worked in environments where “no one complains” is acceptable, or “good is good enough” is the norm. It is worth explaining that employers in Canada value and look for employees who put in extra effort and show initiative and that these are important elements for long term employment success.


Cultural attitudes around work and the workplace

It is important to explore newcomers’ experiences around topics such as punctuality, accountability, and work product/quality in the countries and environments where they may have worked. These may be different than what is expected in Canada and it is helpful to discuss this openly to avoid misunderstandings and help the newcomer succeed.


In this same vein, it is helpful to understand what the newcomers’ prior experience with performance evaluation may have been. To help set expectations, the concept of performance reviews, whether formal or informal and the elements that may be evaluated in employee performance should be explained.