In the Trenches: Acme tries to standardize on a single language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 14 12:41:06 UTC 2006

Forwarded from

In the Trenches: Acme tries to standardize on a single language

In the Trenches: Acme tries to standardize on a single language

An Acme employee institutes an English-only policy in his plant filled
with second-generation workers and the company ends up facing a union
backlash. Find out the details in our monthly In the Trenches, where only
the names have been changed to protect the innocent. When they first
settled here during the mid-1970s, no one was sure what to make of the
several hundred Vietnamese immigrants who carved out a nascent Asian
community near the industrial area on the other side of Interstate 13.
True to the traditional immigrant path, they either established small
shops or filled the entry-level positions at every business in the region.
They worked hard, prospered nicely and paid cash for purchases.

These immigrants possessed a collective work ethic that dovetailed well
with the American business style. It didnt take long for businessmen to
realize that many of these odd-looking people were pretty darned clever,
some even highly educated. The more forward-thinking employers found that
it made business sense to promote a few of the towns new citizens to
higher positions in the corporate hierarchy. One such example is at the
Acme ironworks plant, where about 30 second-generation Vietnamese now form
the mainstay of the unionized maintenance and millwright departments. In
this potentially dangerous job, they display simian-like agility on heavy
equipment, but always avoid stupid mistakes that can hurt someone badly.

Although theyre fully fluent in American English, they mix it with their
native language in equal measure when communicating via Acmes
walkie-talkies. As effective as this was, it was a problem for one of the
newer Caucasian maintenance technicians, who complained to Ike Arrumbha,
the union steward, that he couldnt understand the gibberish coming through
his radio. Ike took the complaint to Earl Kahn, the maintenance manager,
who promised to look into the matter. Earl then went to Ella Mentarie, the
plants HR manager, for advice on handling the complaint. The solution is
easy, she told him. Simply direct the maintenance crews to speak only
English when using the walkie-talkies for Acme business, except where
another language is essential. She added that it might even make sense for
other departments to encourage employees to use only English for Acme

Earl returned to the plant and keyed his radio to ask the maintenance and
the millwright foremen to come to his office before lunch. Thats when he
told his two crew chiefs that their workers cant use the Vietnamese
language on the job any longer. Suddenly remembering what else the HR
director said, Earl also informed the two that Acme would be instituting
an English-only policy soon. That afternoon, word of the new directive
reached Ike. He responded by sending an e-mail to Al Sazleraine, the plant
manager, to record the unions concerns about a new English-only policy for
the maintenance area and the similar upcoming plant-wide policy. Ike
mentioned he was blindsided by this policy and reminded Al that Acme is a
union shop, with procedures in place for instituting such changes. He
added that the technicians take pride in their bilingual fluency. Besides,
he argued, its not a hindrance because using the native language is
irrelevant when technicians are performing their assigned duties

Al replied via e-mail that Acme has a good rationale for instituting the
language policy. The move is meant to ensure effective communications with
every employee in every department, to improve morale, to help prevent
misunderstanding and, above all, promote safety of life and property. Al
noted that the English requirement applies only during normal working
hours and while employees are engaged in Acme business. Furthermore, he
added, Acme has ethnicities other than Vietnamese on the staff and the
company has a right to seek procedural uniformity in its operations.
Hence, establishing the requirement that the maintenance technicians and
millwrights speak only English is proper.

When Ike read the missive, he sent a simple message that wouldnt be
misunderstood by any one. He said that Acmes English-only rule constitutes
a discriminatory and hostile work environment. It violates the Vietnamese
workers right of free speech. And, the union is going to do something
about it. How could this situation have been avoided? Does the melting-pot
concept of English-only have any real importance nowadays? Does it really
matter, considering that the work is getting done? Is someone playing the
race card here? Is free choice of language guaranteed by the First
Amendment?  Are private companies bound by it? Does the company have an
obligation to provide English language classes to the workers so they can
conform to the policy?

An academician says:

A few years back I did some work in a unionized soap manufacturing
facility in which the mixed-gender workforce was one-third
Polish-speaking, one-third Spanish-speaking, and one-third
African-American. With the blessings of the union, the plant manager
formed a plant-wide Communications Committee, which included a
cross-section of the ethnic groups in the plant. The committee met
regularly and dealt with the same communication problems that Acme is
facing, plus a variety of other issues. For example, radios were allowed
in the plant, so the committee needed to avoid having 10 stations blasting
in at least three different languages. And then there were the pinups in
the locker room some males thought they were inspiring and couldnt
understand why some females found the images offensive.

Collaboration was constantly emphasized in committee meetings, as well as
the need for groups to work together to make soap a better place for
everybody. The rest of the employees almost always accepted the committee
decisions, although the committee sometimes had to sell the workforce on
the wisdom of their decisions. And, yes, there were some issues that the
committee couldnt discuss issues that were specifically reserved for
management or union decisions, such as work rules. All in all, the
committee probably was 95% effective in dealing with the matters they

I like the model and have seen it work well in other facilities. The point
here is that too often management thinks it must solve every workplace
problem that arises, and usually does so by issuing policies and
directives. Many workplace issues might be better resolved through
collaborative efforts by the groups involved rather than dictates from
management. A good general rule is to let the people most directly
affected by the problem solve it. That way, it will stay solved. The
communication issue at Acme probably could have been easily solved by the
maintenance crew themselves. The more that management got involved in the
problem, the messier the whole thing became.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso at

An attorney says:

Acme got a bit too carried away in its zeal to conform employee speech to
the mother tongue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),
which enforces the federal anti-discrimination laws, has long scrutinized
English-only rules in the workplace. Unless an employer can justify an
English-only rule by business necessity, the EEOC views the rule as
unlawful. If two of Acmes Vietnamese-American employees communicate on a
walkie-talkie in their native language, it should be no business of Acmes.
On the other hand, if the Caucasian maintenance technician was required to
be part of that communication and to understand it to do his own job, Acme
legitimately could have required these employees to speak English under
these circumstances. But Acme went too far by banning any language on the
job other than English. All Acme had to do to achieve its business purpose
was to notify employees that necessary work communication with employees
who only speak English must be conducted in English.

Ike missed the point somewhat in claiming that banning their native tongue
produced a hostile work environment for the immigrants and violated their
right of free speech. The law doesnt require an employer to tailor its
work environment to the preferences of a particular ethnic group. The
right of free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the
Constitution, only prohibits the government from interfering with that
right. As a private employer, Acme is free to prohibit any type of speech
it wishes, so long as that prohibition doesnt contravene another law, such
as the discrimination laws.

Ike may have missed another avenue for attacking the English-only rule.
Depending on the language of the union contract with Acme, the company may
have had an obligation to bargain with the union before instituting the
rule because its a term or condition of employment. An employer that has a
contract with a union generally cant institute unilateral changes in
working conditions without notice to the union and providing it with an
opportunity to bargain about the change. No law requires an employer to
provide English classes for foreign language-speaking workers. However,
many employers have found it helpful to do so. In this case, because Acmes
Vietnamese workers are fluent in English, Acme might want to forego this
step. But maybe Earl Kahn could take a class in Vietnamese.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
jbadel at

A corporate consultant says:

Earl was right to get advice from HR on how to handle this situation. This
was a positive step on his part. Sadly, not only did HR marginalize the
issue without considering the broader implications (a serious error within
the HR domain, about which fluency should be expected), he went on to
overstate what was suggested to him by the HR manager. These two mistakes
form the foundation for this entire case. Although Ella didn't actually
use the word policy, she implied it.  Additionally, both she and Earl
should have known better than to attempt to make a significant unilateral
change in a unionized environment. Another fundamental mistake by Earl was
elevating this issue to the level of policy based on the complaint of only
one person. Both Ike and Earl should have elicited a bit more information
from the original complainant, and determined the extent to which the
language difference truly affected the complainants job.

Next, a little diplomacy would have gone a long way here. Rather than
bringing in the two crew chiefs and dictating an edict to them with no
discussion, he could have asked for their input on the issue. Instead,
this is now an inflammatory, emotional issue that will require hours of
negotiation to repair. Ella, Earl and Al should have known better than to
take or recommend action without drilling down to reveal the severity of
the problem; and any manager in a unionized environment ought to know
better than to make the first act a hardball pitch.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
fmdalton at


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