Someone asked me to ban Spanish at work

by | Sep 2, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

Should a manager implement the English-only rule in the workplace? Should employees be allowed to use languages other than English while on the clock?

Some time ago, I came across a petition to implement the English-only rule in the workplace. It was a random call, someone asking me to ban Spanish at a retail store. It took me a couple of seconds to think about the nature of the petition. I even felt baffled; I could not believe what I was hearing. Is this conversation happening? I asked myself.

The person complained about employees gossiping in Spanish in front of English-only speakers who were the subject of their gossip. The Spanish speakers ignored, allegedly, that someone who was listening in on their conversation knew Spanish and was able to understand everything they were saying.

Aside from the legal point of view, which I will address next, I would like to discuss first the appropriateness of gossiping in different languages in front of those who are the subject of the gossip. It’s a terrible idea to talk crap in front of your gossip victims in another language! By the way, gossiping in private and behind their backs —regardless of language— is no better either. Right?

If the Spanish conversation revolves around other team members, and Spanish is a means to gossip about them —in their face— in the workplace, this without question is inappropriate. Regardless of the language, saying bad things about a co-worker will always be wrong, leading to a toxic environment. Unless, of course, you talk to them in the right setting willing to smooth things out.

Nevertheless, I would disagree with banning Spanish in the workplace based on this type of isolated issue: gossip. It makes no sense. We don’t ban cars for some drivers turn them into deadly weapons; we don’t even ban guns for they are used by criminals to kill people sometimes. We create logical rules and regulations around these issues.

Cars and guns are not the problems, and neither is Spanish.

I remember when my aunt visited Texas and, while grocery shopping at an HEB and waiting at the cash registers’ line to pay, she complained in Spanish about the person in front of her for having more items than the maximum allowed for express cash registers.

My aunt assumed that the lady would not understand, but she felt humiliated when she turned around, looked at her and responded in Spanish: “puedes pasar primero y tomar mi turno” (you can go first and take my turn). My aunt was stunned. I think she learned a valuable lesson that day.

Things like these can happen, and that’s why I agree that everybody should be careful, they should avoid making fun or negative remarks about others in their native language, and the same goes for English speakers too.

Let me stress this very clearly: the main issue is not the language. It would be racist and petty to ask people not to use their native language or any language they want. The main point here is being polite, respectful, and educated. It’s fundamental if we pretend to co-exist.

Now, going back to the person asking me to ban Spanish, I also questioned the person’s motivations, the source itself. Why? Well, the tone was quite demanding and radical: “don’t allow them to speak Spanish. If they talk to you in Spanish, respond in English,” the person firmly suggested. It sounded like an odd request. I could not square this in my head as something appropriate.

So I pondered again for a few seconds as I listened to the person’s rant, trying to understand where that was coming from, and finally, I responded: “I think this is an HR issue for sure, I would be very cautious with something like this, for it could lead to legal problems.”

So why did I say that? First of all, if you work for a company that supports inclusion, chances are there is a robust company policy around anti-discrimination. There are HR rules and guidelines to consider. So I was not about to take someone’s random suggestion on banning Spanish. Not only because of the legal implications or the company policies —enough to get you fired—, but because it’s just plain wrong. It could even be considered as racist (even if that was not the intention).

Anti-discrimination rights protect Hispanics and any other foreign-language speakers. Never allow someone to implement arbitrary anti-discriminatory rules in the workplace based on racial bias, voluntarily ignoring what the law is. No matter the language, the race, the religion, we’re all equal.

Let’s make this clear, too: yes, there may be some situations that could justify implementing an English-only rule, but some conditions must be met or necessary for this to be acceptable. The reason can’t be that someone within the workplace feels bothered or uncomfortable, or offended when hearing others use a foreign language. It has to be related to the Spanish-speaking worker being unable to perform his role efficiently when English-only is unavoidable to operate the business.

Once you distinguish between the needs of the business and someone’s personal feelings regarding any foreign language, the picture becomes very clear, and it’s easy to understand what could be justified and what could be discriminatory and violating the law. These are precisely the clues you must look for when somebody presents some form of complaint or claim against any foreign language speaker. We must try to uncover the actual motives before jumping to conclusions.

The Federal Anti-discrimination Laws say the following about the English-only rule:

The EEOC has stated that rules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violate the law unless the employer can show that they are justified by business necessity.

A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunchtime, will rarely be justified.
An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently.

Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include communications with customers or co-workers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to boost efficiency. (End quote)

You can read more about Immigrants’ Employment Rights Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws here. Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The law is clear. You can’t ban Spanish based on personal reasons. You can’t ban people from talking to each other in their language, even if it makes you uncomfortable. There has to be a genuine business need to establish such rules.

This issue is so delicate that you must be careful. You must read and educate yourself before taking any random action that could lead to anti-discrimination legal problems. Read your company policies, talk to your HR team, read the law. There are so many resources out there that no one should be in the dark about these sensitive topics.

These cases that may seem inconsequential to the layperson or the uneducated manager are precisely the type of cases that end up on the news and in the courts.

You also want to make sure to avoid racial slurs in the workplace, for these also violate another section of the Federal Anti-discrimination Law:

Harassment Based on National Origin

Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, “Go back to where you came from, ” whether made by supervisors or by co-workers. (End quote)

We’re in the middle of a severe crisis as a nation; our country is developing more tension and conflicts around race-based issues, and hate crimes are rising. We’re living in a time that calls for greater social responsibility, a pivotal point in history demanding us to be more aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion in our society. It’s a time to promote peace, tolerance, a sense of compassion, and understanding.

If we want to see our communities change and grow, we have to start with ourselves, with our families, with our daily actions at the workplace. We can all help change our country and our world for good, and it all starts with small daily acts of kindness.

Are you down to be part of the solution? Leave a comment!

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