E-pinions

English-Only Policies: Our Readers Talk Back

By BLR Founder and CEO Bob Brady



Two Fridays ago, I devoted this column to charges of discrimination brought by the EEOC against, of all people, the Salvation Army. The cause was the Army’s Framingham, Massachusetts, branch’s firing of two Hispanic workers for speaking their native language in the workplace. The Army has a policy of using English-only at work, which they say maintains workplace discipline and promotes productivity.

Needless to say (and I knew it was coming, based on your response to similarly controversial columns), my e-mail box was made rich with replies within 48 hours. You also set a new record for Daily Advisor for “Share Your Thoughts” postings on the website.


Today, I’d like to summarize that response. The top line, or bottom line, if you will, was that readers overwhelmingly supported our position that the Army was right to terminate these workers, by a margin of 8 to 1. However, the reasons you felt it was right were downright surprising.


I wrote the column on the theme of discrimination. The EEOC, you see, has a longstanding bias against English-only rules unless there is a specific business reason that they’re needed. But you saw it more as a matter of bad manners, practicality, and even overreaching by the bureaucracy!


(In publishing your emailed comments, we’ll follow our usual practice of calling you Reader A, B, C, and so on to protect our emailers’ privacy.)


Reader A put the manners issue succinctly. “We seem so absorbed in trying to please all ethnic groups,” she writes, “that we forget our own fundamental basic moral standards, one of which is manners …. You should speak the language of the majority of the people of the workplace, particularly in an open forum or meeting, not for discrimination or policy purposes, but because [not doing so] makes people uncomfortable.”


Reader B amplified this comment. “I think it’s simply rude and shows a lack of respect. If we went to France, wouldn’t we have to learn French? The same rule should apply in the United States.”


Reader C does refer to a French-speaking market, Montreal, and notes that it’s not considered discrimination there if employers insist that you speak French. “We go overboard in trying to defend some of our freedoms,” he writes. “English is the language of the job market. If one wants to speak another language, they can do so when not at work.”


Reader D grew up in a Salvation Army church family, and says he still has his grandmother’s bonnet and tambourine. He defends the Army’s policy because it creates teamwork. “I totally agree in the universal language of English … in [creating] a unity and pulling everyone together,” he writes.


Reader E finds fault with the EEOC in bringing charges over an English-only matter. “I think EEOC is trying to justify its existence because it’s done a good job educating the public and …American businesses now work to be inclusive. Attacking English-only policies is something [for EEOC] to do.”


Reader F represents the smaller, but similarly passionate opposition to my view. He thinks that the Army’s arguments for the policy are baseless and, in fact, undercut the organization’s noble mission and image. “I believe [the Army] would be hard pressed to demonstrate that this policy actually maintained or enhanced either discipline or productivity,” he writes. And “[speaking English-only] is not a condition of employment.”


“First amendment rights,” he concludes, “are not left at the employer’s door.”


If you’d like to read these comments in their entirety, we’ve posted them (with identifying data removed) on our website, along with the original article. You can also read the bylined Web comments made the day the article appeared.


Thanks to all who contributed to this lively and provocative conversation. I promise to do my best to keep igniting such discussions if you promise to keep adding fuel to my fires!

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9 thoughts on “English-Only Policies: Our Readers Talk Back”

  1. How very sad that a group of Human Resource professionals believe that we are too “absorbed into trying to please ethnic groups”, that it is a matter of “morals” or that it is “rude” to speak one’s native language.

    I am horrified that individuals who make these remarks work in HR. Truly people, were you put into this position by accident? How do you manage to build and maintain a workplace free of discrimination when you are oozing with it when you speak and write? I am very proud to be an HR professional and strive very hard in my position to ensure that there are no discriminatory practices herein. I sure hope these comments are from a very small majority of HR professionals, because they give the rest of us “professionals” a poor image.

  2. I give safety orientation to contractors that come on site. This is an English speaking company and will always be an English speaking company. We were founded in an English speaking country many decades prior to many of you being a dream. Companies that send non-speaking persons are soon replaced with companies that have English speaking persons. Safety is important to the work environment and if you cannot understand English or speak English in businesses that have been English speaking for decades then go to where your language is used.

  3. oh yeah it is not discriminatory not to be a person you are not. I am not a person that cannot understand English and will not protray that I need to cater to those who do not. oh yeah I never said I was an English major, I said I understand it.

  4. I think speaking another language when others around you know that you can speak English can also be seen as whispering in public. It is rude and others can easily take offense.

  5. Being an HR Professional and a Christian (fuel to the fire) I am reminded of the teaching of the church regarding the speaking of tongues – where is says the use of the gift is for the edification of the body and where there is no one to interrupt what is being said the gift should not be used because it only causes confusion. The use then of a great gift therefore becomes self-serving and not useful to the building up of the body.

    Speaking a language other than English is a gift I wish I had, but in the work place where I am trying to build teamwork and a sense of common goal. I need to know everyone is on the same page and I desire a sense of consensus, not dissension therefore it is important to know that all the team members are on board. If you are speaking a different language, then the team cannot benefit from your contribution unless what is said is interpreted.

    Some said it is a freedom of speech issue, I could not disagree more, I want my team to freely express their views but in order to address their concerns I need to understand what they are. If what you have to say is constructive then say it so everyone can understand and benefit, if not maybe it is better kept to yourself in any language.

  6. I am a victim of the language barrier issue. Let me first tell you all it is only fair to everyone that English only policies are enforced. It isn’t just about being polite, it is also about damage control. I only speak English and I was responsible for “knowing” what was being said right in front of me because “I should have known”. I am now facing conspiracy charges because of a bilingual manager being allowed to conduct business in both English and Spanish. Even if you have a translator you don’t know if they are telling you exactly what is being said. This is a very dangerous game and we need to get it under control. You all could be telling my same story before you know it.

  7. I find that this subject of languages, other than English, being spoken in the workplace has become a very real issue in the Casino Industry within the past month. We now have a very significant number of non-English speaking employees in the Industry, and it is very hard to communicate work duties and policies with these employees as well as getting numerous complaints from other employees that they feel it is indeed very nerve wracking and rude to have other languages spoken all around them they they cannot understand.
    Wouldn’t it be a much better solution to offer free English/Spanish language classes to anyone interested the same way most companies offer Spanish/English classes? I would love to learn another language if it were offered free within my Company…

  8. I find that this subject of languages, other than English, being spoken in the workplace has become a very real issue in the Casino Industry within the past month. We now have a very significant number of non-English speaking employees in the Industry, and it is very hard to communicate work duties and policies with these employees as well as getting numerous complaints from other employees that they feel it is indeed very nerve wracking and rude to have other languages spoken all around them they they cannot understand.
    Wouldn’t it be a much better solution to offer free English/Spanish language classes to anyone interested the same way most companies offer Spanish/English classes? I would love to learn another language if it were offered free within my Company…

  9. I find that this subject of languages, other than English, being spoken in the workplace has become a very real issue in the Casino Industry within the past month. We now have a very significant number of non-English speaking employees in the Industry, and it is very hard to communicate work duties and policies with these employees as well as getting numerous complaints from other employees that they feel it is indeed very nerve wracking and rude to have other languages spoken all around them they they cannot understand.
    Wouldn’t it be a much better solution to offer free English/Spanish language classes to anyone interested the same way most companies offer Spanish/English classes? I would love to learn another language if it were offered free within my Company…

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