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Effective Practices for Counselling Newcomers

When counselling newcomers, you will have to adapt your communication strategies to your clients’ skills and select appropriate resources. You will also have to assess the level of supports they need. These may range from special supports for traumatized refugees to qualifications assessments for highly educated newcomers.

What do I wish I’d known when I first started working with newcomers?—“I wish I had been more aware of the barriers and challenges they face. I am still dismayed at how little recognition of their education and experience they receive when they come to Canada.”

Cross-cultural awareness, skills, and knowledge can affect all parts of the career counselling process, from how you build relationships with your clients to knowing which approaches and interventions are most culturally appropriate.

Before focusing on career and employment planning activities, consider multicultural strategies and practices. Become aware of your own cultural assumptions, and seek out knowledge of other world views. Your beliefs and world views may, at times, contrast with those of your clients. Professional reflection about personal culture helps to develop self-awareness. This is a core competency in the domain of multicultural counselling.

Multicultural counselling approach

In the multicultural counselling approach, counsellors must be competent in 3 dimensions: self-awareness, knowledge of other world views, and counselling skills.


To work effectively with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, it helps to begin by becoming aware of your own cultural origins, traditions, and beliefs. This process can allow you to understand the role of culture in your own life and to be more:

  • Appreciative of cultural differences
  • Flexible in meeting client needs
  • Open to learning about other cultures
  • Sensitive to clients’ experiences

Knowledge of other world views

Seeing the whole person—“Be understanding of people’s needs, all their needs, including mental and physical health as these could be very important. There may be invisible barriers. Ask probing but sensitive questions.”

To broaden your cultural awareness and openness, try to:

  • Understand the world views of culturally different clients without making negative judgments
  • Respect and appreciate the world views of culturally different clients
  • Accept client world views as legitimate perspectives

There are many ways to learn about other world views. For example:

  • Be open to clients and learn from them
  • Talk to other counsellors who are experienced with a specific culture
  • Seek out and learn about resources in the community
  • Attend workshops or training events
  • Read books, journal articles, and websites

Counselling skills

You can build culturally aware counselling skills by:

  • Practising appropriate, relevant, and sensitive intervention strategies
  • Acknowledging the cultural values and life experiences of clients
  • Incorporating the values of clients into the counselling process, as appropriate

Multicultural client assessment model

The multicultural client assessment model has 4 levels. But before starting the assessment, allow time to establish a relationship and to teach clients their role in this process. If possible, learn about social norms in the client’s home country:

  • What are the rules on personal space, eye contact, and privacy?
  • Is it appropriate to ask direct or indirect questions? Some cultures consider directness to be intrusive.
  • Is expressing emotion considered a sign of weakness? Some clients may be unwilling to share their emotions.

Level 1: Cultural variables and world view

This first level of assessment is to determine a client’s world view. This helps to identify barriers to be addressed. World view is a vital and complex system that includes these elements:

  • Locus of control. Whether a client comes from an individualistic or collectivist culture will influence that person’s decision making.
  • Time orientation. This will affect a client’s view of meetings, appointments, and other time-specific events.
  • Perceptions of human nature. Does the client view others as basically good or a combination of good and bad? This view will affect work relationships.
  • Family roles and relationships with others. A client’s view of family relationships and work roles that are acceptable for men and women will affect career choices.
  • Work values. Work values, such as self-reliance as opposed to group decision making, may affect work performance.

This first level of assessment will give you a much better understanding of clients’ values and beliefs and how these may or may not fit in the Canadian workplace.

Level 2: Personal career issues

The second level of assessment examines the newcomer’s personal adjustment. Try to find out about clients’ experiences before immigration and the circumstances of their leaving. If possible, do research to understand more about the following:

  • Traumas associated with refugees
  • Expectations of immigrants and refugees
  • The experience of culture shock, with feelings of loss, isolation, loneliness, and lack of support
  • The stress that comes with clients’ experiences of acculturation

Keep in mind that immigrants may acculturate faster than refugees, and younger newcomers usually integrate faster than older newcomers.

Level 3: Employability

The major goal of this level is to help clients identify and understand employment barriers that limit their career choices and to develop a plan to overcome them. Employment barriers may include:

  • English language proficiency
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Recognition of prior learning
  • Discrimination
  • Knowledge of labour markets
  • Labour market expectations

Addressing these issues will deal with the perceived and real barriers facing these clients.

Level 4: Goal setting

The last level of assessment involves working with clients to set pragmatic goals. Most clients need to start work or prepare for work as soon as possible. Examples of activities that will help them in their work search are:

  • Learning about Alberta’s labour market and workplace expectations
  • Taking language training
  • Writing a resumé
  • Practising interviews
  • Gaining experience related to work in Canada

Cross-cultural approaches

Staying current with world affairs—“Take time to find out [about] the circumstances leading up to their coming to Canada. You may be surprised to learn about the various countries they’ve lived in or the places they’ve received their education. If you keep current on world politics and issues, you’ll be better able to understand some of the circumstances that prompt people to seek refugee status or to immigrate.”

Knowledge of diverse cultures, while important, provides little information about individual clients. The key point is to recognize the role culture plays in the lives of clients within their families, groups, and communities.

Aim to be flexible in your approach to understanding clients’ experience and working in ways that are meaningful to them. This includes incorporating cultural inquiry into your career counselling practice as a reciprocal part of the client relationship. Try to make cross-cultural preparation an ongoing part of your personal and professional development.

Here are some ways to build cross-cultural counselling expertise:

  • Read literature by writers from different cultures.
  • Attend related conferences or workshops.
  • Become more familiar with settlement services in your community.
  • Stay informed about world affairs, including migration patterns.
  • Explore services to multicultural groups that are evolving in other disciplines (for example, mental health services).
  • Stay up to date on relevant programs in your community.
  • Advocate for newcomer community groups.

Cultural empathy

Understanding how culturally diverse groups view the world of work is an important skill for career counsellors. Aim to build cultural empathy by exploring how culture has shaped the life of a client and sharing that understanding back to the client in meaningful ways.

Listening with understanding—“Set the tone of acceptance and understanding. Somehow indicate to clients that they have a great deal to teach you. If you listen and you respect the individual’s understanding of their own problems and issues, then you’re well on your way to developing some sort of collaborative solution.”

Cultural empathy allows you to validate the strengths and accomplishments that you hear. Clients benefit by hearing what you perceive as the cultural influences in their life.

Some examples of useful topics are:

  • Clients’ beliefs about careers
  • Values related to work roles
  • Role models
  • Gender roles
  • Beliefs about where the client should be in life
  • How the family views different jobs

With practice, you will find that you can guide clients through a cultural inquiry assessment process without actually posing direct questions about culture. Shifting the focus to clients’ individual experience rather than their cultural identity can help increase their comfort with the career counselling process.

Other theories and approaches

Strength-based approach

The strength-based approach is also known as solution-focused counselling. It builds on the idea that everyone has strengths and resources to contribute. A client may not be using their strengths and resources, may be underusing them, or may have forgotten about them. Your role is to help clients identify their own strengths and attributes by focusing on times when they handled change well. Find clues in the clients’ past roles and accomplishments to identify strategies that are more likely to be successful.

As with any empowerment-based approach, make sure clients are involved in determining goals, solutions, and the pace and kinds of changes they will work toward. Client-driven approaches help build client ownership in the career-building process.

An effective strength-based approach involves asking questions to prompt clients to identify their strengths. Asking the following questions may be helpful:

  • Survival questions. Given what you have gone through in your life, how have you managed to survive so far?
  • Support questions. What people have given you special understanding, support, and guidance?
  • Possibility questions. What are your hopes, visions, and aspirations?
  • Esteem questions. When people say good things about you, what are they likely to say?
  • Exception questions. When things were going well in your life, what was different?

These questions can be woven throughout the career-building process. They help clients focus on the positive aspects of their lives as they move forward.

Systems theory

The systems theory framework focuses on the influences between 3 overlapping systems: the individual system, the social system, and the societal system. Within that framework, clients can explore their role in a culture and better express how that culture influences their career development.

Systems theory allows you to focus on aspects of culture that clients themselves consider to be most relevant in their lives. As a result, any action plan or intervention you consider will also be culturally relevant for clients. The advantage of systems theory is that it shows how cultural influences are woven into clients’ needs.

Systems theory shows the importance of improving the societal systems that affect a client’s career development. This focus on social advocacy is a reminder that the barriers faced by clients are not within the clients. They are systemic roadblocks that can be influenced and changed.

Constructivist theory

Constructivist theory suggests that the social group defines “objective reality” about experiences and phenomena, such as healing, human behaviour, and employment. Therefore, knowledge is socially constructed and varies from culture to culture.

Constructivism encourages counsellors to refrain from making assumptions about what goals would be best for clients or what solutions would help them with their problems. This is not a prescriptive approach. Rather, it helps clients to learn more about themselves and what kind of work is available for them in their community.

Communicating with newcomers

Every client is unique, and every interaction with a client is a cross-cultural one. Working with clients from other cultures simply makes this truth more obvious. A communication, cultural, or language barrier between you and a client will hinder the counselling process in obvious ways.

No matter which approach is used, you will need to:

  • Quickly assess the client’s communication skills
  • Adapt your communication style accordingly
  • Adapt how you engage clients in the career-building process

3 areas of communication skills are important when working with individuals whose first language is not English:

  • Writing skills. Clients can review clearly written notes with their friends and family. Writing notes for clients also helps them keep track of what they are exploring or doing next. Write down new and unfamiliar names and places.
  • Speaking skills. Clients will speak with different levels of formality and directness. Many people learning English are able to make social conversation but may not be able to express their feelings well or speak theoretically.
  • Non-verbal skills. Culturally determined, non-verbal communication is open to misinterpretation. Eye contact and personal distancing vary among cultures and may indicate respect or shyness. Ask clients to explain gestures or expressions that are unclear. This will be a chance to clarify the Canadian equivalent.

Help clients build communication skills by:

  • Teaching the importance of good first impressions
  • Providing technical vocabulary related to work search and training
  • Teaching the conventions of small talk and politeness

Referring French-language clients

Because Canada has 2 official languages and plays a prominent role in La Francophonie, many newcomers to Canada have French as their first language. Consider whether your client might benefit from a referral to a provider of French-language career and employment services. You can find them under “Jobs and employment” in the Government of Alberta’s French services directory.

Selecting counselling resources

Always evaluate resources to identify cultural bias and to consider the impact of inappropriate resources on clients.

The following questions may help to determine if career-related and labour market materials are free of cultural bias:

  • Are the names in examples from a variety of multicultural backgrounds?
  • Do the photos feature visible minorities in appreciable numbers?
  • Are analogies drawn appropriately across socioeconomic levels?
  • Do the values presented represent values other than those of the dominant culture?
  • Do the stories and pictures show a range of behaviours or do they show cultural stereotypes?
  • Is the reading level appropriate?

Often, common assessment tools, such as tests of intelligence, interests, and aptitudes, lack validity for newcomers because of:

  • Clients’ unfamiliarity with the activities listed
  • A lack of appropriate norms
  • The difficulty of creating valid constructs across cultures
  • Clients’ level of understanding of test items

When selecting appropriate career resources to use with clients, consider the following questions:

  • Is the client familiar with the activities discussed or surveyed?
  • Is the view of a job the same from one culture to another?
  • Are the assumptions in the interest inventory valid across cultures?
  • Is the language appropriate?
  • Is the job or profession itself culture-specific?
  • To what degree is this client free to make career decisions as opposed to deciding on the basis of family or societal pressure?

Telling the story—“Newcomers know that their grandchildren will be born here and will tell the story of them coming to Canada.”

Counselling through continuity and change

Alberta will continue to become home to newcomers from various countries, as a result of evolving migration patterns and world events. Counsellors need to continue educating themselves about other cultures. As the province’s workforce continues to diversify, more employers are developing inclusive communities for their employees. The cultural dynamics will continue to evolve and raise different challenges and opportunities for workers who are new to the Canadian workplace.

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