When English Is the Rule at Work

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Jan 27 16:57:27 UTC 2008

 When English Is the Rule at Work

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Published: January 27, 2008

MEMBERS of Congress are battling. Blogs are trading complaints. Conservative
commentators are grumbling about government overreaching into the workplace.
  Sean Kelly

Why the fuss?

The Equal Employment Opportunity
using authority it has had for more than a quarter-century, sued the Salvation
year over its requirement that employees in its office in Framingham,
Mass., speak only English on the job — a requirement that cost two
Spanish-speaking clothing sorters their jobs. The suit has landed in the
middle of the virulent national debate over
assimilation. "Hot and bothered" would be a way to describe the
political climate of the issue, said Reed Russell, legal counsel of the

Under the Civil Rights Act, rules limiting which languages can be spoken in
a workplace are allowed only if they are nondiscriminatory and if they serve
a clear business or safety purpose. In 2004, the Salvation Army decided to
enforce an English-only rule after the sorters had been working in the
Framingham store for several years, the commission's complaint said. The
commission found no such reason for the limitation. A Salvation Army
spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the case, which is
pending, but the organization says it believes there is no legal basis for
the suit. Politicians like Senator Lamar
Republican of Tennessee, have jumped into the fray. Last year, Mr. Alexander
introduced legislation to prevent the commission from suing over
English-only rules. After that measure died in conference committee, he
introduced a similar one in December.

"This bill's not about affecting people's lunch hour or coffee break — it's
about protecting the rights of employers to ensure their employees can
communicate with each other and their customers during the working hours,"
he said in a recent statement. "In America, requiring English in the
workplace is not discrimination; it's common sense." Time out, everyone.
Let's think about what really makes sense here. Certainly, safety issues
arise in some workplaces. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example,
requires air traffic controllers to "be able to speak English clearly enough
to be understood over radios, intercoms, and similar communications

Managers may also need employees who can speak English to English-speaking
customers. And they may hear complaints if English-speaking employees say
they feel excluded or gossiped about when colleagues converse in another
language. Such situations, in fact, gave rise to English-only rules in the
first place. "When employers call, asking if they can implement English
usage rules, it's usually because they have safety concerns," said Wendy
Krincek, a lawyer at Littler Mendelson, an employment law firm. "Or they
have Spanish speakers and non-Spanish-speaking employees think they're being
talked about, or supervisors only speak English and they are monitoring how
people speaking Spanish interact with co-workers and customers. You've got
to show a business necessity."

But from a management standpoint, these rules should be a last resort. Good
management depends on communication in every direction. If some employees
are more comfortable speaking a language other than English, particularly
over lunch or during breaks, and it has no effect on customers or safety or
ability to function, it is hard to see the purpose of cutting that off. It
is also hard to see how conversing in a foreign language is more off-putting
than endless tapping on a BlackBerry. Nonetheless, in a study of Latina
executives published last October by the Center for Work-Life Policy, many
said they refrained from speaking Spanish at work because they felt that
doing so would hurt them professionally.

"Women told us they don't speak Spanish on the phone to customers because it
is such a black mark in their corporate culture," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett,
the founding president of the center. "The immediate judgment is they're
talking to their girlfriends or mothers or whatever. Spanish is not
associated with business connections. It's associated with gossiping or
wasting time." One respondent, a Dominican marketing executive at a consumer
products company, said her company discouraged her from speaking Spanish to
Latin American customers — even though, she said, it helped her build
relationships with them.

the bank based in Charlotte, N.C., has some experience, albeit indirect,
with English-only rules. In the 1990s, First Union, a bank later acquired by
Wachovia, was sued in federal court over its English-only policy. (The case
was dismissed in 1995 on summary judgment.) But with Wachovia offering
financial services nationwide and overseas, a diverse work force is almost a
necessity, said Sharon Matthews, director of work-force policy. The bank has
call-center employees who can respond to customers in a variety of
languages. And Wachovia actively recruits employees who speak more than one
language, she said. "We expect our employees to be able to speak with
colleagues in English, but we also place a great emphasis on bilingual or
multilingual skills," she said.

E-mail: newmanage at nytimes.com.


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