Language Diversity in the Workplace

By Rodríguez, Cristina M. | Northwestern University Law Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Language Diversity in the Workplace

Rodríguez, Cristina M., Northwestern University Law Review

INTRODUCTION.................... 1689

I. the social case for the multilingual workplace .................... 1696

A. Language and Association in the Workplace.................... 1703

B. Diversity, Burden Sharing, and Solidarity in the Workplace.................... 1711

II. moving beyond the title VII paradigm.................... 1725

A. The Parameters Set by Title VII.................... 1726

B. Title VII's Inadequacies.................... 1738

III. diversity management through law reform .................... 1750

A. Language Rules and Decentralization .................... 1750

B. Devising Workable Rules for Employers.................... 1760

C. Association and Workplace Pluralism.................... 1771

CONCLUSION.................... 1772


In March of 2005, the manager of a Dunkin' Donuts in Yonkers, New York, stirred some local controversy when he posted a sign inviting customers to complain if they heard employees behind the counter speaking a language other than English.1 A day later, the manager removed the sign, responding to vociferous complaints that it amounted to discrimination. While the mini-drama was not itself an unusual event-English-only rules have become increasingly common in the American workplace-the episode did not follow the predictable script. The manager, who acted on his own, was himself a native Spanish speaker-an immigrant from Ecuador. He claimed he had posted the sign in response to customer complaints about employees behind the counter acting disrespectfully by speaking Spanish in the presence of customers. But the outcry that prompted the manager to remove the sign came not from the employees whose speech had been curtailed, nor from groups representing their interests, but from the very clientele the manager thought he had been serving. The people of the neighborhood immediately denounced the policy as discriminatory, coming to the defense of the Latino, Egyptian, and Filipino employees. And while Dunkin' Brands, Inc. requires employees who interact with the public to be fluent in English, the company immediately issued a statement distancing itself from the manager's action, emphasizing that "having employees that speak the languages of the local neighborhood . . . can be a key element in creating a hospitable environment." The company took no disciplinary action against the manager, and the episode ended looking like nothing more than a big misunderstanding.

Though the Dunkin' Donuts affair came to a quick resolution, the event was part of a larger trend that has emerged in recent years in workplaces across the country. It has become increasingly common for employers to adopt English-only rules that prohibit workers from speaking languages other than English under certain circumstances. Such rules represent, in many ways, the private sector versions of the official English laws on the books of states across the country. But whereas the official English movement traffics largely in the rhetorical and symbolic, the emergence of the English-only workplace rule suggests that the language debate in the United States has very practical implications for the ways millions of people interact with others in certain public spaces, such as the workplace. The existence of private language regulation also underscores that lofty concepts like the definition of national identity are worked out not only through highprofile oratory and grandstanding, but also through everyday interpersonal interactions.

English-only rules in the workplace have taken a variety of forms.2 Some rules govern only official work time; others cover any and all conversations in the workplace. Some rules are set by formal corporate policies, but, more often than not, they are informally adopted by managers in the workplace itself. They appear most often in the consumer services sector, but they also have appeared in other workplaces, such as hospitals, offices, and on assembly lines. …

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