Can My Boss Speak Spanish in Front of Me?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about speaking in a different language:

I was recently hired at WalMart and my assistant manager is Hispanic. She speaks both English and Spanish fluently. On my first day I ran into my manager in the restroom and said hello. She left and shortly after I did as well. As I was walking passed management’s office, I heard her say to the store manager, “She’s kind of dorky”, and then they both looked at me and started to laugh. I continued to my work area feeling as though they were talking about me, but I have no proof.

Later, the assistant manager came to my work area and spoke only in Spanish to the person training me, who speaks both English and Spanish. This made me feel very uncomfortable, as though they could be talking about me. But I have no proof of that either. As my manager was walking away, she turned to me and said in English that she was just telling my trainer what needs to be done next. Is it legal for my manager to speak to an employee in Spanish right in front of me, especially when they both speak English?

Signed, Uncomfortable

Dear Uncomfortable:

Our site provides communication-related advice; not legal advice. However, I don’t think it is against the law for your manager to speak in Spanish to your trainer in your presence. Your manager explained to you that she was telling your trainer what needs to be done next. It is normal to speak to an individual in his/her native tongue, especially when that tongue is yours as well. So get over the fact that people will talk about you as a new employee. Rather than worry about what people might be saying focus on learning the job.

Your manager and coworkers who speak Spanish would be pleased if you learned a little Spanish as well.Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that means doing all that is reasonable to communicate; such as asking what, where, when, and why questions and paraphrasing what you are told. Remember misunderstanding is the rule and therefore be willing to listen and to explain in different ways. Follow UP Thank you for your response. I understand that it may be natural for two people to speak to each other in their native tongue, however, in terms of communication I don’t see how it is appropriate for someone in a leadership position to speak to my coworker in a foreign language that I do not understand, particularly when they both speak English. I have no idea how to tell if they are talking about work, or something completely inappropriate. It is ridiculous for you to say I should learn another language because of this. I will learn another language so that I can better assist those who DO NOT speak or understand English. Not to know what my boss may be saying to another employee. I know that others may say whatever they want about me, and that is not my focus. My focus is in learning my job and doing it well. The reason I felt uncomfortable with them speaking in Spanish in front of me is because I have already heard her talking negatively about others, which is irresponsible. All of us speak English, so wouldn’t it have been more effective communication for my manager to speak to both of us in English, at the same time? We have the same job and responsibilities, so why tell one in Spanish and supposedly repeat it again in English? Reply:Unfortunately, you want advice that agrees with your opinion. So ignore what I’ve suggested. Ignore learning a little Spanish. Continue to wonder and think that your boss and coworkers are speaking ill of you. Sure it is more polite to speak in a language that all present can understand. I agree with you on that. I know from personal experience because my wife speaks a language of her native country to her daughters and I am left out wondering what is being said. But they like to chat in their language more than in English. So I live with it and understand. You can speak to your boss about how much you dislike him/her speaking in Spanish in your presence and how you appreciate it when only English is spoken in your presence. You have a voice and it’s OK to express that opinion. My best to you in your new job. Follow Up 2: It seems that we are having a communication problem with each other. I’m not looking for advice that only agrees with my opinion. I actually have family that is from Mexico and have a very hard time speaking in English. I also have a hard time understanding them at times. They speak with their friends and other family only in Spanish in front of me and I accept that. I know that is easier and more comfortable for them. I don’t think, in the situation I explained to you, that it is appropriate in the workplace since we all speak English. I would like to explain this to my boss, but I wanted to know first if there is any kind of law in regards this situation. There are many more employees, I have found out, that feel uncomfortable with this manager speaking only in Spanish to others that understand both English and Spanish. Many feel that she favors and gives them special treatment. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I apologize for looking for advice that you’re not able to give. I have enrolled in a Spanish class, but I can only pick up a few words at this time. My reason for taking it was to help and better understand those with a language barrier. That is how I plan to better communicate with others. I don’t think the situation I explained is either appropriate, nor good communication skills. I do appreciate your time in responding. Thank you for your suggestions. ****************************************** Hello! Dr. Gorden and I sometimes follow up on the response of the other and I’ll do so in this case.There is no specific law about English-only, but there have been court decisions about it. Those are viewed as at least having set the general standard. You would need to talk to an attorney to ensure the most correct and current information.Generally it is held that English can only be required when it is a business necessity, not at other times-particularly not in break rooms, bathrooms and non-business conversations at the worksite. What “business necessity” means has been defined in different ways. Usually the thought is that if everyone must hear some information it should be said in English. If the conversation is between two people about a specific issue, sometimes the problem is solved easier if the native language is used for convenience.Since you’re talking about Wal-Mart, I should mention that as a company Wal-Mart is endeavoring to hire more Spanish-speaking staff and also has provided Spanish instruction for some stores where there are no Spanish speaking staff. I don’t think you will be able to prevail about trying to reduce the amount of Spanish spoken by your boss as long as she can justify that they weren’t intended for other employees.How she and the employe speak together would also be important. If it looks overtly rude you should talk to your store manager about it. Now, having said all of that, let me also say that I think it’s rude to frequently speak a language that is not known by most others in the room. The situation you mention would have been acceptable, standing alone (she spoke Spanish but followed up by explaining to you that she didn’t say anything related to your specific work.) But, if it happens a lot, it becomes a work distraction and a continual source of irritation (as I think it has become there in your workplace.) I particularly share your feelings that you always wonder if they’re talking about YOU when they talk and laugh in your presence. I feel that way even when it’s close friends doing it. I always think of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine hates to get her nails done at a place where she thinks they’re talking about her, but Jerry tells her she’s being overly-sensitive. In a later scene at the nail salon, the subtitles reveal that they ARE talking about her and making insulting remarks while smiling and laughing as though they are talking about something else. I’ve never forgotten that episode and rarely go anywhere that will put me in that situation! 🙂 It sounds as though things got started off badly for you there, which is a shame. However, people’s opinions change as they get to know someone and even now your coworker may feel badly about saying something so junior-high-school sounding. Give her a chance to redeem herself if you can. If that isn’t effective, at least you’ve tried. The main thing is not to give her a reason to be even more unpleasant, because that only makes your work harder.I think it’s wonderful that you’re learning some Spanish. But, as you’ve found out, it’s like trying to speak at a two-year-old level around adults who are talking technical-talk. Just being able to say Hola, doesn’t really help and it takes quite a while for an adult to be able to participate in even basic conversations. (I guess that’s why the Spanish speakers prefer to speak Spanish–so they don’t have to think through it so much!) Living in a newly emerging multi-cultural world is very challenging. A hundred years from now it probably won’t be, but I won’t be here to appreciate it!I wish I had some very positive and clear advice to give you about the language situation, but I don’t. I think English/Spanish/Spanglish is the future for us. I visit more and more workplaces where employees are going back and forth with languages. Wal-Mart will be at the front of that for economic reasons at least.Best wishes to you! If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know if things improve or if you find a way to encourage a different approach.

William Gorden