Migrants: Understanding the Kiwi workplace

The Kiwi workplace is unique. From the distinctive language and communication style through to the relaxed informality with the boss, the workplace environment in New Zealand can be very different from what many new migrants have experienced before.

New Zealanders are laid-back and many have a relaxed attitude to status and hierarchy. The boss, although respected, is usually seen as ‘one of the team’. Managers are called by their first name and feel uncomfortable with the titles of ‘boss’, ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. While this can be refreshing for some new migrants, it can also be confusing and a little daunting for others – particularly for those who are from more hierarchical cultures that display a high deference to authority.

Independent working, displaying initiative and having a ‘can do’ attitude is encouraged by New Zealand employers. Most Kiwis also like to be left to get on with the job, rather than being heavily supervised. As teams tend to be smaller in New Zealand workplaces it is also important to be a ‘team member’, and building relationships in the workplace is very important. This can be done through morning tea and lunchtime chats, joining work sport or quiz teams, and attending ‘Friday drinks’ (a common end of week get-together). While New Zealanders appreciate and expect high quality work, it pays to note that bragging is frowned upon, and humility is valued.

New Zealand’s unique language and communication style is one of the biggest adjustments for new migrants in the workplace. The Kiwi accent is often the hardest thing for new migrants to get used to - even for those from English speaking countries. New Zealanders speak quickly, tend to mumble and rarely pause between sentences. The vowel sounds can be particularly tricky to interpret as they sound flat and are often ‘swallowed’.

Another communication hurdle for new migrants is the frequently-used colloquial language.  Kiwi slang can be challenging for all new migrants – regardless of country of origin. ‘Jandals’, ‘togs’ and ‘smoko’, for example, will be foreign terms to those even from the United Kingdom and Australia. Phrases like ‘she’ll be right’ and “no worries, mate” are an interesting reflection of how the Kiwi culture places a strong focus on fairness, equality and informality. There is an emphasis in New Zealand speech on ‘the team’ rather than the individual and it’s not uncommon to hear “we” used when the intended meaning is “you”: “could we get that finished by Wednesday?”

New Zealanders are also quite indirect in their communication. This can be a source of frustration for new migrants who often remark “just say what you mean!” Rather than using phrases like “email me that” or “shut the door”, New Zealanders soften the language to avoid sounding rude: “sorry, would you mind emailing me that” and “could you possibly shut the door?”. Those who come from cultures where language is more direct may have to adjust their language style in order to not offend their workmates. Making suggestions and disagreeing, however, when done in a New Zealand-appropriate manner is encouraged. A useful workplace resource for migrants is Worktalk – an Immigration New Zealand tool for understanding workplace communication.

Other aspects of the Kiwi workplace that may surprise newcomers include the casualness of the dress code, and the ability to fit family commitments around work. In fact, considering a request for flexible working hours from an employee is required by employment law in New Zealand.

Many new migrants choose New Zealand as a destination for the lifestyle and the ability to achieve a work-life balance. Understanding and adjusting to the Kiwi workplace is an important part of achieving this dream.

- Lisa Burdes

(Lisa Burdes is the Skilled Migrant Business Advisor at the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber offers free settlement support and practical resources to assist employers of migrants in Canterbury. This service is fully funded by Immigration New Zealand. If you are a migrant that requires settlement information, please visit the INZ website New Zealand Now (www.newzealandnow.govt.nz ) or visit your local Citizens Advice Bureau.)

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