Language at Work: English Only?

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What language do you speak at work? Or is it languages? A recent incident at Whole Foods in Albuquerque, USA sparked outrage on social media fuelling a debate on spoken language at work.  Should companies be allowed to tell employees what languages they can and cannot speak while working?

Yahoo! News reported that two New Mexico based, Spanish-speaking employees of the American supermarket chain Whole Foods were recently suspended because they made complaints about the company’s language policy. The event has resulted in a re-examination of the company’s language policy but is an interesting case study in how to (or not to) address cultural and linguistic diversity at work.

Spokeswoman Libba Letton stated that the policy is currently being re-examined, and that “it will be the topic of ongoing conversations at an all-leadership conference next week .” New Mexico governor Susana Martinez is very happy with the development. As New Mexico has long been a state where Spanish and American Indian languages have played a big role in the daily lives of its inhabitants, Martinez is “glad they are willing to re-evaluate that policy because I think every state is different.” As the only Latina governor of the United States, Martinez feels the Spanish language “is part of the fabric of what makes New Mexico great.”

The Whole Foods employees believe they were suspended because they were speaking Spanish while working in the supermarket. Whole Foods, however, stated the two were suspended because of “rude” behaviour. Ben Friedland, Whole Food’s Rocky Mountain region executive marketing coordinator said that all employees of the company that speak English must do so while they are working unless the customer addresses them in a different language: when all “present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication,” another language is allowed. In addition, Friedland states that “Team members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work.”

When people on social media got wind of the suspension and Whole Foods’ language policy, they reacted with anger. Online petitions were even started to change the rule that employees cannot speak another language other than English while working. Moreover, in a news conference outside the supermarket where the incident took place, state director of the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens Ralph Arellanes stated that the company had a week to change their policy. After this week, a national boycott of the company will be put into action. Arellanes: “we will give them a period of seven days to implement a new policy, which includes (dropping) this policy, or we will hold them accountable.”

According to Letton, Whole Foods will consult several civil rights groups when reviewing their policy. She says the company is “also in the process of reaching out to groups like LULAC to discuss the issue and hear their perspective.”

What do you think? Should companies allow communication outside of the prime language or are they entitled to be strict about it to protect culture? What are the benefits and drawbacks of allowing lots of languages at work or maybe one dominant central language?

Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Nokia, Renault, Samsung and Microsoft Beijing have all recently mandated English as their corporate language. In 2010, Japanese internet services company Rakuten made headlines when it announced it would become an English-only organization, with all communication, verbal and email, in English.

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