Can I Require Employees to Speak English?

by Evil HR Lady on April 19, 2019

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?

To read my answer, click here: Can I Require Employees to Speak English?

Leave your own in the comments!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

grannybunny April 19, 2019 at 2:29 pm

I love the suggestion to take Spanish lessons. That was my first thought when I started reading the article. Encourage the English-only speakers to learn a little Spanish. I’m Anglo, but live in an area where there are a lot of people whose first language is Spanish. I studied Spanish for 3 years in school and have also lived in Mexico and Guatemala, leaving me moderately fluent in Spanish. Knowing Spanish helps me in interacting with my neighbors, shopping, reading for pleasure, etc. It also eliminates most of my paranoia when others speak Spanish around me, assuming that I don’t. The vast majority of the time, they are NOT talking about me. On the rare occasions when they are, I wait until after I’ve heard however much I want to hear, then make a point of saying something in Spanish, so they will know that I understood what they said.

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BethRA April 19, 2019 at 3:54 pm

Offering intro Spanish classes, or encouraging the English-only group to learn at least a few basic phrases would probably go a long way towards bridging the gaps. The English-only crowd might start to feel less excluded, and the bilingual group might appreciate the effort.

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Sharon April 19, 2019 at 4:49 pm

I find it rude when my coworkers speak in their native language. It’s not like I live & work in Chinatown (NYC) or Little Havana (Miami). Call it paranoia if you wish, I call it rude.

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Sharon April 19, 2019 at 4:51 pm

I find it rude when my coworkers speak in their native language in front of others while working. It’s not like I live & work in Chinatown (NYC) or Little Havana (Miami). Call it paranoia if you wish, I call it rude.

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Sharon April 19, 2019 at 4:58 pm

I find it rude when my coworkers speak in their native language in front of others while working. It’s not like I live & work in Chinatown (NYC) or Little Havana (Miami). Call it paranoia if you wish, I call it tacky.

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Camellia April 19, 2019 at 8:25 pm

Looks like the link to the comments is not working.

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MariaRose April 20, 2019 at 1:28 am

Nice reference to EvilHR situation with being the non-German speaking person, but the situation asked about in the article, refers to speaking to others in a work environment and I disagree with the allowance to use another language other than the work environment language.
I am going to give you another example since the one describes an office environment where I am assuming these workers are highly skilled and educated, hence the multiple languages. I think the situation described is a retail situation where English is the language expected to deal with the customers. From a customers viewpoint, having the clerks speak another language between themselves, makes them (the customers) feel less appreciated and their customer experience is not enjoyable, etc. So, I would expect that all employees during their work shift to speak English, except on their breaks away from customer view and hearing, even if they are working together on a project on the floor, If this “offends” the person who wants to talk to others in their native language versus the work language, then they should have discussed this prior to starting the job. They should only use the second language if requested to translate to the customer by their supervisor.

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charles April 21, 2019 at 5:22 pm

Just because it is legal doesn’t mean it is polite!

Assuming the OP is in North America, I’ll say the following:

True, the employer cannot “force” the staff to speak in only one language; but, I find the suggestion that the English speaking employees be offered Spanish language classes offensive.

What if the bilingual speakers were Hmong speakers? Would you have suggested that Hmong language classes be offered? What if they were Cantonese speakers? Or any other language?

Are you also going to offer English language classes for those whose prefer speaking in Spanish because they feel more comfortable in Spanish? How about getting their English skills better so they feel more comfortable in English and they then don’t exclude some of their co-workers?

How about suggesting that the other language speakers take culture classes to learn that in North America it is considered rude to speak a foreign language in front of others as it does exclude them?

Sorry Suzanne, but, I disagree with you on this one. This manager already asked those speaking a language that excluded co-workers to be polite and their response was “you’re violating my rights!” They sound like a bunch of trouble-makers. And I don’t care what language they are speaking – they were asked to stop behavior that made others uncomfortable and have chosen not to. This is not good. Then suggesting that those being made uncomfortable need to change is worse than “not good” it is downright offensive!

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grannybunny April 22, 2019 at 3:11 pm

I think Hmong or Cantonese language lessons would be perfectly appropriate in a workplace that had a lot of employees for whom those were their primary languages. If the employees for whom English was not their primary language were not fluent enough in English to adequately do their jobs, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes would be in order. I note that many communities with large immigrant populations already have such classes, frequently offered for free by organizations such as public libraries, so there might be minimal costs to the employers.

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BethRA April 22, 2019 at 5:12 pm

If there were a sizable body of English/Hmong speakers in the office, yes, I would have suggested offering classes in basic Hmong for those who didn’t speak it – not as a requirement, but as an option to help people in the office connect with each other. One side already speaks two languages, it won’t kill the other to make a little effort as well.

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Payroll Lady April 22, 2019 at 7:38 pm

I agree with you Charles. IF they know their rights, they should be considerate enough to speak the “common” language of the country they are employed in. I work for a construction company with an extremely diverse workforce. (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Polish and of course English) When any of these employees come into the office, they immediately revert to English to the best of their ability. I have a few employees that can translate for me, and, if I know the employee is having difficulty trying to ask a question I will grab one of the others to help, to make it easier for the employee, but that’s me and my choice. I make that choice because the employee made the ATTEMPT to talk to me in English. I feel, if nothing else it is a matter of consideration. These employee’s should be asked ” if I were in your country would this fly?” Bet the answer would be no.

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J.D. Walker April 21, 2019 at 7:06 pm

All you folks saying its rude are the ones being rude yourselves, because you’re expecting a window into someone else’s conversation. Not everyone is talking about you, snowflake, and people aren’t your personal barbie dolls to manipulate as you wish. Peoples’ existence isn’t made solely for your comfort.

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BethRA April 22, 2019 at 5:01 pm

RE: whether or not this is a retail situation and whether that changes things. LW did not say this was a retail establishment, or anything to indicate that it was, so I’m not sure why we could/should assume it is. But even so, if I’m at the supermarket, or a clothing store, and the staff are chatting with each other rather than serving me, I’m getting bad customer service and that to me is a bigger issue than whether they’re chatting in English, Spanish or Tagalog.

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Angela April 22, 2019 at 11:42 pm

I work for a large, global organization. With the diverse group of employees here, it is not unusual for me to hear people speaking other languages. They offer cultural training to employees as well as basic language training. I find it all to be very interesting and I really don’t see how someone speaking their native language in a private conversation is rude.

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grannybunny April 23, 2019 at 1:22 pm

This whole conversation reminds me of an old joke. What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual
What about someone who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual
What do you call someone who only speaks 1 language? American
Some Americans want everyone to speak English in America, then travel to other countries and want everyone to speak English in non-English-speaking countries too. Hence, the stereotype of the Ugly American.
It helps to remind oneself that your co-worker whose first language is not English probably speaks English better than you speak their language! 🙂

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