When English Is the Rule at Work

Posted on January 27, 2008

MEMBERS of Congress are battling. Blogs are trading complaints. Conservative commentators are grumbling about government overreaching into the workplace. Why the fuss? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, using authority it has had for more than a quarter-century, sued the Salvation Army last 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 immigration and assimilation. “Hot and bothered” would be a way to describe the political climate of the issue, said Reed Russell, legal counsel of the E.E.O.C. 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 Alexander, 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 equipment.” 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. Wachovia, 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.