How to Deal with Spanish Language Discrimination in the Workplace*

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By EmployDiversity

A former coffee shop worker born and raised in a Hispanic family in California once found herself simultaneously angry, embarrassed, offended, and humiliated at work. Her boss -- also an American -- told her to stop speaking Spanish with a new hire. “I was just helping the new employee learn his job,” she explained. “It was faster and easier for us to communicate in Spanish.”

Though her job was not threatened, she felt as though there was a kind of implicit “English-only” rule applied specifically to her, arbitrarily. It felt like a kind of discrimination. In some ways, it was.

Tin Ear

Americans have a difficult  time navigating any language other than American-English. Just hearing different languages fills many Americans with anxiety and dread. Some of the more self-conscious even suffer a spot of embarrassment that they only know one language.

In most of the world people speak two-, three-, four- or more languages, switching effortlessly between them at home and in the workplace. They will speak a mother-tongue, and quite often English as a second language.

In businesses around the world, language is a tool to expedite information exchange. In American companies, American-English is a medium for information exchange, for transactional transparency, and even of control.

On an individual basis, many Americans view American-English as an identifier, in much the same way as their membership in a local church. Speaking American-English and no other language helps Americans define themselves as “in” the American tribe and others as “outside” the group. Speaking in a language other than English -- especially Spanish -- in America is often met with some level of suspicion by the English monolingual.

With the current United States administration’s fear-mongering about the migration and immigration of citizens from Latin American countries into the United States, monolingual Americans view the use of Spanish language in the workplace with even greater suspicion than before.

Language Discrimination?

In the instance of the coffee shop worker, the boss could argue that he insisted on an unspoken English-only rule so others would not feel excluded on the team. It’s doubtful, though, team members were feeling rejected by the worker’s one-on-one job orientation.

The Workplace Fairness website -- a not for profit organization -- identifies language discrimination as a subset of national origin discrimination. In other words, it is illegal in America to discriminate against someone because they were born outside the United States.

The website reads:

“Because language discrimination is a form of national origin discrimination, the same body of law prohibits it. This type of discrimination generally makes it illegal to prefer one language over another, though there are many exceptions.”

The site continues:

“A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times on the job can violate the law, if it has been adopted for a discriminatory reason or if, is not uniformly enforced, or if it is not necessary for conducting business.”

For some multilingual job seekers who speak Spanish and English, being able to speak their mother tongue with others matters a great deal to them. If it is point that you highly value, ask during job interviews explicitly if there are workplace regulations about speaking another language in the workplace.  If the workplace does have such a code forbidding speaking a language other than English in the workplace, and you are strongly against such a constraint, don’t waste any more time with the organization and move on in your job search.

If you’re already employed in a company and lapse into Spanish now and again, you should proactively check with HR on its language policy. If they do have such a policy, inquire about the details and the motivations. And get a written copy of the language code. You may find HR’s responses become fodder that motivates you to put together a business case for supporting that Spanish language can also be spoken in the workplace.

The Way the World Works

Ultimately, diversity in the United States is about the world chipping away at the bastions European-Americans have placed around and throughout organizations. Many of the barriers have been put in place to preserve power and control, to sustain a network with others of like mind, complexion and heritage.

However, as is the case in much of the world, immigration and globalization are eroding those keeps. Instead of feeling yourself stopped in your career development because of such limiting policies, make the point that you are at the forefront of a major trend: the internationalization of the American workplace.

*NOTE: While this article is an update of one written before the election of the current U.S. administration, this article cannot be taken as legal advice; and readers are advised to seek legal counsel to answer any questions they may have about the topic.