Not A Funny Place, Ottawa, Spring 2011

My work experience in France is fairly limited since I left when I was 18. I basically embraced the Canadian work culture—I didn’t really have a choice anyway. It’s only when I talk with my family or friends back home that I notice the many little differences that exist between the two cultures.

So, where are my two-hour-long lunch break? My subsidized meal vouchers? Oh right, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean… That said, working in Canada also has good sides, and the unemployment rate is lower than in France.

Payday is every two weeks

In France (and in most countries, as far as I know), you get paid once a month, usually towards the end or the very beginning of the month. Hence French sayings such as “boucler ses fins de mois”, literally “make ends meet at the end of the month”.

But Canadian payroll employees apparently work harder than their French counterparts and you will likely get a cheque (or more a direct deposit) every two weeks.

Employees usually “brown bag”

In North America, the “brown bag” is a symbol for the meal you bring to lunch at work, typically in a brown paper bag. Lunch boxes are mostly used by schoolchildren to take packed lunch from home to school.

In France, most large companies have their own cafeteria, where low-cost meals (usually subsidized by the company) are served to employees. Alternatively, the French can use their “ticket restaurants”, company-subsidized meal vouchers.

In Canada, no such luck. The best you can hope for is a non-subsidized vending machine and if you don’t want to waste money and gain too much weight, you’d better start packing your own lunch!

You can be lost in translation

Canada is officially a bilingual country. But a “Jones” may not speak a word of English, and a “Tremblay” may not speak a word of French. In short, don’t assume anything about people’s official language abilities! In Ottawa, we are regularly lost in translation, starting a conversation in English before we realize we both speak French.

Since Canada is also a country of immigrants, people around you may also have various language abilities, various accents etc. It’s usually not a problem, Canadians are not as picky with their language as the French are, and communication is more important than perfect grammar.

Monday a suit, Friday jeans

Casual Fridays, where people are allowed to dress down, are always a popular tradition in North America.

So don’t be surprised if the entire office wears denim on Friday to celebrate the upcoming end of the work week.

You’d better eat fast

Forget about the famous two-hour-long French lunch break during which you can enjoy a cooked meal, take a walk outside, run errands or go to an appointment.

In Canada, you get 30 minutes to eat and that’s it! Even then, a lot of people simply eat at their desks while working. So when you brown bag, don’t bother making a three-course meal unless you can chunk it fast.

Don’t expect to sign a detailed work contract

A few years ago, I was working over 10 hours a day. I was exhausted and when I complained to my parents, they gave me this piece of French advice: “Check your contract of employment!”

However, as I soon realized, contracts are a bit on the light side here and are definitely not as detailed as in France. For instance, working in a “permanent” position only means you are hired until further notice. Contracts may also be very vague, stipulating that your schedule may change without notice and that working hours are not guaranteed.

Work schedules can be flexible

In Canada, you can shop pretty much anytime including late at night and on Sundays. Most companies’ customer service is only a toll-free phone call away, even late at night. Remember, the customer is always right!

The downside is that if you are working in a customer service position, you can expect a rather flexible schedule, including working late at night or during weekends. And no, you won’t get paid extra for that.

How about you? Did you notice any difference when you came to Canada?

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  1. Cynthia July 27, 2011 at 9:31 am

    I’s starting to dislike my Tickets restau as I am getting fatter by the day, that is when I am not getting sick because of the lax hygiene in many restaurants. Plus it’s not that cheap, I have to pay 4.50 euros a day for 9 euros of ticket restau and with 9 euros I can only eat a sandwich on most days.

    Plus, I have only one hour (unpaid) to eat so there better not be a queue at the restaurant!

    In Montreal I had either one hour (unpaid) or thirty minutes (paid) lunch brakes. Plus in Montreal, I got to actually spend my money whereas in Paris the shops are always closed so I’m saving about 40% of my salary!

  2. N July 27, 2011 at 11:22 am

    You’ve got to see your contract? I have yet to see one. In all the jobs I have had I was “hired” and was expected to work on such schedule, but never got to sign or even see a written contract!

    I dislike “casual” attire for work… What does it mean anyways? When I was working in an office they told me first to dress casual everyday of the week, but then jeans were only meant for Fridays. Uh? Are jeans supposed to be less noble than other kind of pants? Ridiculous.

    1. Zhu July 28, 2011 at 11:39 am

      I know what you mean! I only saw my “contract” because I had to sign it but it’s definitely not as detailed and binding as in France.

      Office work attire requirements always puzzle me. I think the guidelines (when they exist) are very vague. To me, a nice jeans (no hole, good fit) is better than a regular pair of black pants that can be revealing. And I don’t understand why women can wear sandals while men can’t!

        1. Zhu July 29, 2011 at 9:30 pm

          The last two places I worked at…! Seriously. It was a joke among us but it was in the 100-page long employee manual. Love the Hill!

  3. Nigel July 27, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Payday every 2 weeks is interesting. The others are more or less familiar. I wish shops/restaurants were open late night though. Everything closes at 11 pm for me.

    1. Zhu July 28, 2011 at 11:39 am

      11 p.m. isn’t so bad… in France, most places close at 7 p.m.!

      Do you get pay every month in India?

      1. Nigel July 28, 2011 at 11:10 pm

        Yeah, first working day of the month usually.

        1. Zhu July 30, 2011 at 10:48 pm

          Interesting! I wonder if that comes from the British system… I believe most Europeans get paid monthly as well.

  4. Shannon July 28, 2011 at 5:33 am

    In the US, it’s usually every 2 weeks for payday and sometimes once a week. I don’t know anyone who was paid once a month. I worked a handful of jobs in the States before I moved to France, and sure enough, at Friday at midnight every other week, the money was in my account. Here, it’s like a guessing game.

    1. Zhu July 28, 2011 at 11:41 am

      I had a couple of jobs that paid once in a month in Canada, but it was the exception. And yes, French accountants don’t seem to be as regular as their North American counterparts.

  5. Steff July 28, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Zhu!! I have a question: is it true that for casual Friday you still have a sort of dress code?? Gracias!!

    1. Zhu July 28, 2011 at 6:20 pm

      In a way, yes… most places are basically expecting employees to wear jeans (no holes). But again, some places don’t allow that, some industries are more conservative (like banking). There is no official code, just observe your co-workers!

      1. Steff July 29, 2011 at 10:30 am

        Thanks!!! 🙂

  6. Kathleen July 28, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    When I worked as a language assistant in a high school in Québec I had a 75-minute lunch break!- that was amazing considering that at my high school we got a 40-minute lunch break! Now that I work in customer service in Montréal and I get a 30-minute unpaid break, I definitely miss that over-an-hour-long break…

  7. Rick Carroll July 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Hey Zhu,

    I like this story. Actually it’s nice to hear the differences between countrys. It gives us a better sense of what we have and don’t have here.

    Enjoy the weekend.

    All the best,


    1. Zhu July 30, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      Thank you! I love cultural differences, like you say it makes the world a more interesting place!

  8. Gail at Large July 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Having worked a multitude of jobs in a bunch of cities in a bunch of countries, everything from retail to gym attendant to reception to phone interviewing rooms (where the customer never sees you) to the justice arm of the government to door-to-door sales to photographer, I don’t see that much of a difference between the western countries… rather, I see more of a difference between the cities because of the sectors and industries and their own cultures. For the urban centres, they really do operate differently, and if it’s a tourist town like Banff or Whistler, it’s season-driven and transient.

    In Canada, Calgary’s work culture is driven by the oil and gas industry and different from Vancouver, which among other things is a port of call for Alaska and a big hub for the gaming industry (which is its own culture) and the same goes for Montreal and Toronto, which are known for industrial giants like Bombardier and the banking industries, respectively. Working hours in a capital city like Edmonton are shorter because of government compared to a business city like Calgary.

    In Vancouver, which is centred more on recreation and people aren’t workaholics like in Toronto, flexibility extends to 4, 10-hr work days for some, which means every weekend has three days, which I think is very civilized. People like to ski and hike after work, so they leave early.

    My doctor in Vancouver had an office across the street from me at the marina beside his boat and was hardly ever in his office, because he was always out on his boat! One of our clients had an office in Gastown and would take a float plane to his house on an island because it was the only way to get there. I don’t think we ever contacted him on a Friday because of that.

    I can tell you the work culture between an office in Edinburgh and an office in Glasgow is very different because the people are different. Once I worked for the same company in both offices, and eventually I moved myself to Glasgow because of those differences. But I enjoyed the tea and scones cart that would come by at 10am and 2pm every day in Edinburgh — we’d all stop for it!

    1. Gail at Large July 29, 2011 at 9:49 pm

      I can also tell you people who work in the “wheeling-and-dealing” industries like sales or investment banking NEVER brown bag because somebody is always taking them to lunch or golf or doing deals over drinks and food. We get catered food delivered every day, and the people who stay late order whatever they want from restaurants. I take an unbelievable amount of food home with me because of the leftovers, otherwise it’s such a waste.

      food = bribery = expense accounts

    2. Zhu July 30, 2011 at 10:51 pm

      Oh, I wish…!

      When I worked for the private sector it was as a teacher so we didn’t have many free food opportunities. And in government, the best we can get is donuts from the Tim Hortons downstairs! That said, on the Hill, we had wine & cheese events at the Parliament once in a while and I’d show up just for the food. The selection of cheese was amazing. Gosh, I’m drooling just to think of it… 😆

      I like shorter work days. It’s more intense than in France but at least, you have some free time at the end of the day.

  9. Neeraj July 29, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Although those in the service industry have varying work hours, most Canadians enjoy a 9-5 work routine. I know for sure that in Japan,India,Korea work hours are significantly longer.

    1. Zhu July 30, 2011 at 10:51 pm

      And I bet they are in China too! I wonder how long a typical workday is there…

  10. Jorge July 30, 2011 at 7:47 am

    I definitely enjoy the Canadian work culture. There are a few difference with the one in Mexico and most of them are much better.

    1) In Mexico you are frowned upon if you leave at the time your are supposed to leave, even if you do not have anything else to work on. In Canada, as long as you do your job, you can leave at your scheduled time and no one doubts your commitment to the company.
    2) In some companies in Mexico, if you get a promotion you do not get the corresponding salary raise because you will be “tested” first to see you can do it. In Canada, you get your promotion and salary raise at the same time. I mean, if you are promoting someone is because you believe in that person doing a good job, you do not promote someone to see if it works out in a few months.
    3) Forget about overtime in Mexico, you stay more hours because it is your obligation, period. In Canada, you stay more hours, you get paid overtime.
    4) Most managers in Mexico have a “closed door” policy, their word is the law. It is more common when working with male managers. Most managers in Canada have an “open door” policy, they are open to negotiations with their employees.
    5) In some companies in Mexico, women are still treated as second rate employees. There is even one company in my city that up to 2004 (last time I heard about it), they would not hire married women because they might get pregnant and miss some time from work.

    Not all of the above situations apply to all Mexican companies and I am sure there are great places to work there. I have heard about people being happy in their job in Mexico, but from my own personal experience, I am enjoying the work culture in Canada 🙂

    1. Zhu July 30, 2011 at 10:54 pm

      That’s really interesting, there are so many common points between Mexico and France!

      Most of my friends in France work long hours, they feel lucky just to have a job. It doesn’t mean people are more efficient though, they take long lunch breaks and start later. But they are only done around 7 p.m. And like you said, managers also have a “closed door” policy. Basically, feel grateful to have a job and don’t complain.

  11. Em August 22, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Ireland is quite similar to Canada in this respect, except for language and casual Fridays, but apparently, there can be some “dress-down” days for charity. You have to pay to earn the right to dress-down though!

    1. Zhu August 22, 2011 at 9:51 am

      I think I heard of that in Canada too. There are always a lot of events organized for charity here!

  12. Cubicle Rebel January 20, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    I think casual Friday should generally be casual every day. Most jobs have no need for dressing up with women wearing uncomfortable pantyhose and men with nooses around their necks.
    I perform better in laid-back clothing anyway.

    Provide strategic cookies and performance would skyrocket.

    1. Zhu January 25, 2012 at 1:24 am

      I tend to agree with you! I love wearing jeans and I don’t think it affects my performance much. And give me cookies anytime!


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