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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I'm Sorry, I Didn't Catch That?

Isn’t there a law or best practice on how to approach employees who prefer to speak their foreign tongue in the workplace in front of other employees who do not understand what they are saying? Grant it, the majority of our investors are foreign, however, the company is based in the US and majority of the employees are Americans. It’s frustrating to be around people who may be talking about you in their native tongue. Furthermore, they prefer that you learn to speak their language by offering classes during the work week. Please advise. Thanks.

A law is very different from a best practice. I am not a lawyer and I don't like to give legal advice, so let's just stick to the best practice aspect of things. (Although here and here are things to consider on the legal side.)

So, a best practice. Why do you want an English only policy? I think this sentence sums it up: It’s frustrating to be around people who may be talking about you in their native tongue.

First: No one is talking about you because you just aren't that interesting. (Unless, of course, you are wearing one blue shoe and one brown shoe, which I did once. Remember not to buy the same style of shoes in different colors and then get dressed in the dark so as to not disturb your sleeping spouse. Your office is an hour away and you can't go home and change, so you will be forced to wear mismatched shoes all day.)

Second: English is the easiest language for you to communicate in because it's your native language. Therefore, [whatever language] is the easiest for your co-workers to communicate in because it is their native language.

Third: You really need a solid business or safety reason for the language rule and there doesn't appear (from the minimal information given) that there is one.

Fourth: This sentence: Furthermore, they prefer that you learn to speak their language by offering classes during the work week. This is the answer to your problem. Take the darn classes. It will help your career. And people couldn't be talking about you behind your back (they aren't anyway) if you took the classes.

The majority of your investors are foreign. They have made it clear that they want you to speak their language by offering you classes (free, I suppose) and not requiring all business to be conducted in English. This is what we say is a "big clue." Do you want to advance in this company? Take the classes. Do you want to be rated highly? Take the classes.

Each business has things that they value. I used to work for a grocery store chain. I was in corporate HR. I wanted to be promoted. The only way for me to get promoted was to get out of my comfortable cube and work in store management. I think grocery store management would be fascinating, but it's not a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday job. It's every Saturday and every Sunday. It's late nights and early mornings. I had to make a choice. Do I want to do what I need to do to move up in this company or do I leave? I chose to leave.

I would still highly recommend them as an employer to anybody else (great company), but their determination of what worked for their business didn't work for my schedule.

You want an English only workplace with nobody pushing you to learn another language. Go find it. (Just a word of caution, if you mention in an interview that you are looking for an English only workplace, I won't hire you and I would advise others not to as well. Why? Because that just screams to me a huge potential discrimination law suit when you won't hire someone whose native language isn't English.) Most professional jobs around these parts are English. Something involving safety will be English only. Go be an air traffic controller.

But, stop worrying about your co-workers. They are doing their jobs. You do yours. Take the language class. Learn what they are saying and jump into the conversation. If you feel like you are missing out on business information (for instance, side conversations during a meeting), just say cheerily, "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that?" or "Could you share that idea in English so I could understand as well?" But, keep in mind the response may be, "sorry, it wasn't about the issue at hand."


Jon Hyman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Hyman said...

From the legal side, also consider this:

Evil HR Lady said...

Thanks Jon! I knew my lawyers would come through.

Wally Bock said...

Wonderful response, Evil. I especially like the part about "They're not talking about you because you're not interesting."

While I think everything you've said is spot on, I also think that the boss will need to do some watching of this. You don't want a bit of discomfort to turn into disharmony. I would imagine that a good boss would notice and perhaps chat with both sides.

class factotum said...

Sometimes, however, they are talking about you! My friend Lauren is fluent in Spanish. She looks like an English rose, so to look at her, you wouldn't think "native speaker." (Although you would be wrong -- plenty of blue-eyed blonde Chileans, Mexicans and Colombians.)

She was at a meeting in Florida. They were on a break and two of the women started gossiping in Spanish about their boss, who was sitting right next to them. Apparently, the boss did not speak Spanish.

When the boss left the room, Lauren told the two women in Spanish, "Be careful. You never know who might speak Spanish."

They just about choked and begged her not to tell the boss what they had said.

Evil HR Lady said...

well, yes, that's possible. I have a very American looking friend who is fluent in Japanese and has spent many years there. She's had similar experiences.

Evil HRISguy said...

Of course, an English only requirement might rule out several native English speakers whose command of the language is suspect at best!

Florinda said...

I'm sorry - this has nothing to do with the substance of your post, but I did the exact same thing with the shoes once.

Evil HR Lady said...

florinda--you've just made my day. I felt like a total dork all day--and I pointed it out to everyone I ran into, so they wouldn't talk about me behind my back, just in front of me.

HR outside Boston said...

My company is so diverse and had complaints to HR about the different languages spoken that one employee actually hung up the following:Prohibiting the speaking of another language during employee break time, in the parking lot, before or after work hours, or in casual conversation among co-workers is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Etienne said...

I'm familiar with the Babylon situation from the point of view of a headquarter managing subsidiaries in countries with half a dozen different languages. English is the official company language but you can hear all kinds of languages in our offices. However, we have also learned to quickly switch to English to make sure that somebody joining a conversation doesn't feel excluded. Sometimes you can even hear people switching languages in mid-sentence in front of the coffee machine. For me, this is simply a matter of respect.

And being a man, I only own one pair of shoes, so no danger of mismatching ;-)

Anurag Bansal said...

I kind of have a mixed feeling.
Yes, that is very true, there is law which restricts you to make a policy on language use in office. And it is true as you mentioned it is none of one's business what someone is talking about unless he talks directly to him/her even if he is cursing him/her in one's native language.
At the same time, for the very fact if someone is talking in front of you, then you will always think he is talking about you only. And that feeling will create friction between team members. So for the company benefit it is necessary that there is a policy which dictates the use of one particular language.
One relaxation can be given by the clause...."you are allowed to speak in your native language as long as there is no foreign party present during the conversation."
Imagine what happens if you are at client location and the employee speaks in his native the client will feel. Same logic applies everywhere.
I am not HR, but that looks like a common sense thing to me, not eligible for a HR policy though. Employees should be sensitized about this issue.
A little long comment I think...sorry for that.
Anurag Bansal