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Why do some employees react negatively to co-workers speaking other languages at work, and how can HR help?

It is a common dilemma: employees complain about co-workers speaking other languages at work, conflicts arise, teamwork suffers, and morale issues begin invading the organization. These complaints usually center on an employee’s perception that it is rude for co-workers to speak another language at work, that such actions are intended to be deliberately exclusive and to make other employees feel uncomfortable. Employees feel they are being talked about, laughed at or even plotted against. Yet, Title VII protects employees from national origin discrimination, and therefore, employers must allow employees to have conversations in their native languages, unless there is a reasonable business need to require English-only rules during working hours.

So what can HR do to resolve this conflict when English-only rules do not apply, such as during break times and lunches, and for businesses that cannot justify such a policy? First, educate employees on discrimination laws and work to foster inclusion.

Start with presentations on national origin discrimination and show the correlation between native languages being allowed in the workplace and the law. Work to create a presentation that shows common misconceptions on both sides and engenders respect for each other. Employees should be well informed of the company’s discrimination policy, which should also include the use of languages and guidance on what would constitute discriminatory or harassing behaviors. It should be communicated to all employees that failure to abide by the company’s policy and its expectations may result in disciplinary action, including termination.

HR must also search for ways to ensure that inclusion is an integral part of the company’s culture. Providing a cohesive environment where everyone is respected and valued is vital to ensuring organizational success. Employees may find it easier to assume that others are deliberately speaking a foreign language to hide something rather than to take the time to understand another’s point of view. Conversely, always excluding employees from conversations by using another language can be unprofessional, unfair to co-workers and not in the best interests of the employer. Diversity and inclusion training should include awareness of cultural differences and the challenges non-native-English speakers may currently or once have faced, such as trying to fit into a new culture, being understood when conducting daily activities and being accepted and included at work. Employees also need to respect those fluent in more than one language. These individuals are able to speak English, but at times choose to speak to others in another common language. This is a natural way of sharing a part of their heritage while providing enjoyment in speaking a language that they both share.

Finally, the organization’s management must “walk the talk” and be ready to address situations that affect their teams or jeopardize the employer’s goals and vision for the organization.


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