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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.
“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.”
Why the fuss ?
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
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
“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 coworkers and customers. You’ve got to show a business
Job for English English for job
MEMBERS of Congress are battling, Blogs are trading
complaints. Conservative commentators are grumbling about
government overreaching into the workplace.
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 Centre for Work-Life Policy, many said they refrained from speaking
Spanish at work because they felt that doing so would hurt them
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.
Our receptionist is terrific at ensuring employee's
special events are marked with a greeting card,
signed by staff. Most occasions are birthdays, but
recently a sympathy card did the rounds when
someone's father died. An employee was on his
way out the door when he swiftly scrawled a
message. "Here's to another one," he wrote
blithely, "with many more to come!"
ALL in a Day’s
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 The Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission, using authority it has had for more than a quartercentury, 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 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.
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