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Dear Workforce How Do We Encourage Acceptance of a Bilingual Workplace

Our company hires many employees whose only language is Spanish. We require managers to speak both English and Spanish. The fact that managers must be bilingual has angered some English-only managerial candidates, who complain it is an unfair burden to require them to learn another language when our Hispanic employees are not required to learn English. I realize it is perfectly legal for our company to require managers to be bilingual in a bilingual environment, yet how do we contain the negative fallout and the claims we are discriminating against the English-only speakers? I am certain that we will shortly be losing quality internal candidates because of this.
October 16, 2007
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Related Topics: Career Development, Employee Career Development, Dear Workforce
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Dear Language Barrier:

Great question. I wish there were an easy (or popular) answer. There isn't.
Hiring workers who cannot communicate with their co-workers or managers in the recognized language places a considerable burden on everyone in the workplace. Let's also acknowledge that some understandably resent the fact that they must learn a new language to get along or get ahead at a job in their own country. That said, we're presuming that your management contemplated (and accepted) the consequences of that practice before venturing down this road.
Assuming that your employees work in an integrated environment where regular communication is required, not having the ability to communicate effectively (and efficiently) with one another is unacceptable. So what to do?
  1. If managers must be English-Spanish bilingual, make sure that standard applies to everyone in management, with senior management setting the example.
  2. Get ahead of the power curve in reaching out to high-potential non-managers whom someday you would like to see in a management position. Make sure they know you think they've got a future with the organization, and encourage them to begin taking steps to prepare, including learning Spanish if need be.
  3. Don't waffle on the job requirement, and don't apologize for it. Yes, it's unfair, but so are many other things in a manager's life.
  4. Maintain a policy stance that English is the language of choice in the workplace. If you aren't speaking it, you need to be learning how.
  5. On the premise that your problem is not really solved simply by requiring managers to be bilingual, we would:
a. Encourage English-speaking non-managers to become bilingual as well. Pay for it, "incentivize" them to do it—and find a way to have some fun with it.
b. Require all employees to become conversant in English. Make it known in the employment process that this is a job requirement, and don't hire those who balk or don't have the capacity to learn. Here again, pay for it, incentivize them and have some fun with it, but do it. ESL classes can be incorporated into the workplace for a relatively small investment. If you've hired the right people, they will appreciate the opportunity to learn.
Buena suerte.
SOURCE: Bill Catlette, Contented Cow Partners, Memphis, Tennessee, July 26, 2007.
LEARN MORE: English is the language of business for many firms, although some find that getting employees to learn Spanish can build bridges to co-workers and customers.
The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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