I manage a group of employees at a company where English is our official business language. There are a few people that speak only English, while another group speaks English and Spanish. The bilingual group often communicates in Spanish, which makes the English speakers uncomfortable. I asked the Spanish speakers to stick to English at work, but they say I'm violating their rights. It's ruining morale! What can I do?
Lost in Translation
Languages are interesting because they can be a source of unity and a source of isolation. My native language is English, but I live in Switzerland, where the official language is German but the common language is a dialect of German. As humans, we often think people are speaking another language so that they can talk about us without us understanding. But, the longer I live in this country and understand the local language, the more I realize that people just aren't talking about me, even when my kids are being whiny.
The reality, however, is that language choice simply comes down to the fact that most multilingual people have a first or preferred language, and when they can use it, they will.
Chances are that morale is low at your office because the English-only speakers are concerned that the Spanish conversations are about them, which points to a deeper conflict that's dividing your team. So, my advice is two-fold: First, tell your English speakers to stop being paranoid because the language situation is likely just a matter of convenience, and second, create some team-building activities to unify your department.
You Cannot Limit People to One Language (in Most Cases)
Your Spanish speakers are right about the law—you can't stop them from speaking Spanish in the setting you described. Companies can have a required language for conducting work and for safety-related activities. You don't want the surgeon speaking a language the anesthesiologist doesn't understand, for example. But on breaks and during casual conversations, you really cannot and should not limit people to one language. That violates federal anti-discrimination laws.
With that said, you can require meetings to be conducted in a language that the entire room understands and you can require all official documentation to be written in English. There's no reason why chit-chat or a meeting between two or three Spanish speakers can't be in Spanish, however.
Use Team Building to Strengthen Relationships
As someone who has been the miserable one sitting there with conversations flying in a language that I don't understand, I can relate to your English speakers. (Keep in mind that your Spanish speakers may feel excluded by the English speakers as well, even if they aren't saying anything.) But, how do you fix this sense of isolation? The answer is to build relationships among team members.
Consider doing a team activity, mixing up the seating arrangement at the office or assigning a Spanish speaker to work with an English speaker on a project. The goal here is for your employees to get to know each other as humans.
The more people know and understand each other, the more comfortable they will be with each other around. If there's a good relationship between Maria and Kate, when Kate walks into the room, Maria may switch to English to make Kate feel more comfortable without any prodding from you. Additionally, it's absolutely fine for Kate to walk up to Maria and Mateo and say, "Can I join you?" Most likely they'll say yes and switch to English.
And if you really want to build bridges, take a Spanish class or two. It's good for your brain and for strengthening relationships with people at the office. Plus, it's never too late to learn something new.
Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady
Photo: Creative Commons
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