I love hearing people speak multiple languages around me. Recently I’ve gotten over any nervousness about asking people what language they speak, so I’m always having fun with the people and languages around me.
Nevertheless, I know that this feeling does not permeate all of our culture. Plenty of bosses feel the need to control how people talk to one another. Employees feel excluded when colleagues speak to each other in a language they don’t understand. Customers feel suspicious that workers speaking another language might be saying unflattering things about them. Our society largely distrusts other languages, dividing those who only speak English and everyone else.
Forcing only English to be spoken at work is against the law. It is discrimination. Yet some employers exclude languages at work even while workers talk on the phone to family members or walk to their cars in the parking lot. While I would prefer that people enjoy the languages around them, I am relieved that eliminating all languages besides English at work breaks the law. I wanted to present some examples of real language discrimination, as well as the settlements against it, both in the US and abroad.
Harassment and hostility for Filipinos
In 2012, 69 Filipino nurses won a language discrimination settlement from the LA-area hospital where they worked. Management would tell them, “English only! English only!” as they were singled out among speakers of various languages and forbidden to speak their language “at any time” at the hospital—even among themselves or on the phone with family members. (Filipino is the third most widely-spoken language in the state of California.)
These employees claimed that they suffered “constant harassment” from coworkers and management. Housekeepers and security guards would follow them around, under orders to watch and report on the Filipino employees’ speech. This hostility affected the atmosphere so much that one worker sprayed air freshener into a Filipino coworker’s lunch because of her “hatred” of her cuisine.
The hospital settled for $975,000 and regular staff training on diversity, with three years of monitoring by an outside agency.
Forbidden to speak Polish
In Aberdeen, Scotland, a Polish woman, Magdalena Konieczna, won a cash payout because of being banned from speaking Polish and consequently fired. Not only did one manager regularly refer to Polish workers as “f***ing Polish,” but she was not allowed to speak Polish at the factory, even to other Polish workers who could not speak English.
Management claimed that the rule arose from health and safety reasons, although the judgment—as well as logic—concluded that the rule caused more safety concerns, not fewer. The situation was so ridiculous that one Polish employee had to bring an interpreter to assist in an interview with Ms. Konieczna, rather than conduct the interview directly in Polish.
She wished to pursue an unfair dismissal suit, but could not because she had been employed less than two years.
The factory paid out more than £5,000 in 2016. The tribunal rejected Ms. Konieczna’s desire to sue the company for discrimination on the grounds that the English-only policy did not disadvantage her since she speaks English.
Nigerian denied a promotion
The Insurance Journal cited the case of a Nigerian car salesman in Phoenix who was denied a promotion. While the salesman spoke fluent English, managers told him he need to speak “more like an American.”
The dealership settled out of court for $99,000 in 2008.
The same article presents the increase in such cases.
Workplace discrimination complaints based on national origin — which often involve language ability — rose by 76 percent from 1997 to 2011, when more than 11,800 complaints were lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
I Iike to encourage loving languages with a proverbial “carrot,” such as making connections with and learning from others. As we can see, though, a “stick” is out there, too. Our society has decided that allowing languages other than English is a right worth protecting, and that speaking English with a foreign accent should not be considered a deficit for job promotion. Companies should learn how to incorporate and encourage the use of multiple languages at work rather than pressure and control other means of communication and expression.