Excluded Because of Language Differences

Question:

Hello, I work in a bakery in the US. When I took the job it was to learn. They needed “just the right person” and apparently they thought it was me.

When I started there were other English-speaking people in the kitchen but now, three months later, I am one of only two English speakers who work in the kitchen. The other one is a decorator, so we don’t work directly together.

I speak a small amount of Spanish and as the days go on the other workers in the kitchen speak more and more Spanish and less-to-no English throughout the day. I am feeling more and more isolated and becoming frustrated daily.

When I do speak to the other English-speaking person the other employees stare at us. It feels weird. Then the other weird thing is my bosses/ owners do not speak any Spanish and are often asking for translation, but they are not there all of the time.

I have been working in kitchens for about 15 years and have worked with many Hispanic people and have never had this problem before. I need some advice on how to deal with this.

Signed,

Feeling Frustrated


Answer:

Dear Feeling Frustrated:

I wish there was an easy solution to your situation, because we hear similar concerns very often. This is something that the owners should have been concerned about and worked with all of you about it from the beginning.

I can imagine it’s frustrating and isolating to feel excluded when coworkers are speaking in another language and to feel strange when you speak to a coworker in English. Sometimes even when everyone is speaking English (or Spanish) there is STILL that problem!

Here is the reality of what can be required and what cannot: Under the federal Equal Employment Opportunity law, no rule can be made to require only English at work, unless an employer shows that the requirement is necessary for conducting business. That isn’t as impossible as it sounds, if the employer wants to do it.

For example,your coworkers can be required to speak English to you to give you information about work, but they can’t be required to speak English to each other when they’re talking about things not related to work.

I would suggest two resources for you. First, contact the department of Labor in your state to see if they have advice for employers, which you could pass along, that clarify the federal law.

You might also be able to get some assistance by talking to other bakeries in town, because you know they have similar situations. They might give you some ideas for setting up guidelines for your store owners to write up and give out.

Next, consider contacting a baker’s union you find on the Internet (there are three that I know of). They may be nice enough to give you some ideas for dealing with the issue, since they have had similar concerns in many settings. They too might know better about legal issues for a small bakery.

The reason I’m focusing on the bakery unions is because each business situation is different and they would be more likely to know what conversations can be argued as being necessary in English.

The next thing–which might be the first thing if you decide to not do the others–is to get the subject out in the open. Apparently the others do speak some English, they have just started speaking more and more Spanish to each other, which means there are less and less conversations in which you have a part.

The next time they are having an open conversation, not an obviously private one, say in English, “I wish I understood what you’re saying because it sounds like fun.” Or, “Could you give me a quick translation so I’ll know what you were talking about?”

That will be a reminder for them that they are excluding you and it feels badly. You might not want to ask them to translate dozens of times a day,but a few times might help them realize how often they’re shutting you out.

The other thing to do is to engage them in conversation in English, so they are more likely to view you as someone to talk to and to include.

It may be that they think you don’t want to talk to them and they are choosing to talk to each other in a language that is more comfortable for casual conversation.

One thing is sure–if they feel good about you, they’ll be more likely to want you to understand them. If they feel negatively about you, they are more likely to look for reasons to shut you out of their conversations.

I think if I were you I’d stop being a translator for the owners, unless you were hired to do that. Owners are not required to speak Spanish or get a translator. The law requirement is that they can require English to do work, they just can’t require it for private conversations. So, if the owners want to be able to talk to employees, they should hire employees who can communicate with them about work.

Some businesses don’t care about that, so they just hire managers who are bilingual and hire whoever they want. But, since you weren’t hired to be the bilingual person, I think I’d become less fluent if I were you.

Another thing is to watch your conversations with the other English speaking person. When you talk to her, include others with your eyes, if you want them to hear it (or even if it isn’t specifically for them, include them to model how it ought to be done.)

You apparently speak some Spanish. Consider having a phrase or two you can say. For example, say in Spanish, “I’m sorry we can’t say it in Spanish but it’s too difficult for me to translate.” That way you’re not excluding them without explanation.

Use non-verbal gestures, sounds, facial expressions, to maintain a good relationship with your coworkers. It might only be pleasant and not accomplish much, but it might get you more conversation too.

You might also want to talk to the owners about how things have changed since you took the job. Let them know you’re not happy. That might at least have an impact on the next hiring they do. I’m afraid I don’t have a perfect solution for you, but making some effort, as mentioned here, might at least make it apparent that the current situation is rude feeling and demotivating to you.

If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know about any resolution to this, so we can share it with others. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe