Where 'English Only' Falls Short ; Companies Scramble to Cope with Multiple Languages in the Workplace

Article excerpt

They were the go-to people when customers needed advice in Spanish about eyeshadow or perfume. But when Hispanic employees wanted to speak Spanish to one another, they say it was forbidden - even on lunch breaks.

Five women who worked for the cosmetics store Sephora in New York filed complaints, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued last fall on their behalf. They argue the policy is too restrictive and amounts to national-origin discrimination, which is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"All of the [women say] how hurtful it is to be told that you can't speak your own language," says EEOC attorney Raechel Adams. "Language is so closely tied to their culture and their ethnicity. [Ironically,] they were expected to assist Spanish-speaking customers."

As companies hire from an ever more diverse labor pool, they reap the benefits of bilingualism, but they're also running into a Babel of problems.Already, a fifth of the nation's population speaks something other than English as their primary language (in some areas, it's two-fifths). Many of them have limited English proficiency that can lead to costly mistakes or low productivity. Managers worry about compromised safety or the quality of customer service. And if some workers use a foreign language to mock others, morale can break down.

There's no quick fix. Some employers go to the expense of offering classes to improve workers' English. Others turn the tables and train supervisors in languages most often spoken by workers in their industry (see story, page 15). What seems the simplest answer to some - an English-only policy - is tricky because conflicts between court rulings and EEOC guidelines leave a lot of gray areas.

In the case of the five New York Hispanics, Sephora denied that it had an English-only rule or discriminated in any way. The court is awaiting the store's answer to the complaint.

English-only policies generate few official grievances. In 2002, the EEOC received 228 such complaints out of about 9,000 claims of national-origin discrimination. But observers say that many more workers who feel silenced don't take action for fear of losing their jobs.

Often what determines fairness is how a policy is implemented and whether there's an atmosphere of ethnic tension. In a case settled recently for $1.5 million, Hispanic housekeepers at a casino were not allowed to speak Spanish. A janitor reported that he had to hide in closets to train new employees who understood only Spanish. Others told of harassment by supervisors who called them "wetbacks," accused them of stealing, and fired them for objecting to the English policy. The Colorado Central Station Casino in Black Hawk did not return calls seeking comment. In the settlement, it denied wrongdoing but agreed to remedies such as posting notices declaring there is no English-only rule.

For bilingual people, suppressing the tendency to talk in both languages can be difficult. They may know enough English to get by in their jobs, but to talk about family or other topics with friends, their primary language offers them a much richer vocabulary.

"It's called code-switching," says Nina Perales, regional counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), which joined the EEOC in the suit against the casino. "You might switch languages for reason of emphasis or because you're more comfortable explaining certain things in one language versus the other." And sometimes it's even done unconsciously, linguists say.

But when conversations are restricted, "there's almost an issue of dehumanization." says Karl Krahnke, a linguistics professor at Colorado State University. "They are not being viewed as humans with the same social needs as anybody else."

Some insist those complexities shouldn't keep employers from creating a language policy if they think it's good for business. …