Coworkers Won’t Speak English

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about not speaking the same language:

I work at a fast food restaurant and the people I work with are always speaking in Spanish. I’m the only one that does not understand.I feel that we are a team and why make me feel like an outsider? I have asked them not to do that and it’s like they don’t hear me. This is the U.S. and our language is English.

Signed, Shut Out

Dear Shut Out:

We’ve researched this in the past, because of questions such as yours, and found that a number of court cases have established that in most workplaces employees can only be required to speak English if it is a work necessity. For example:*When helping clients and customers, unless the customer needs assistance in the other language. *When the conversation is directly about work. *When the conversation is about something that all employees should know or would benefit from hearing, even though it is directed to only one individual. (Sam, the XYZ machine isn’t working so we’ll have to use the ABC one until we get the other one fixed.)Generally, employees cannot be prohibited from speaking their native language in personal conversations, especially away from the immediate work area. It doesn’t constitute a hostile work environment for others, for them to do so.Legal aspects aside, English-speaking employees can feel completely shut out of the social aspects of work when the majority of other employees choose to speak another language. The same would be true if English speaking employees were hired at a non-English speaking restaurant and stood together talking even though others couldn’t understand them.

When situations like this develop there are usually other issues going on too. That may be the case in your workplace. Among the most common “other issues” are age, gender and employment differences and conflicts of other kinds.Here a few suggestions that might help:

1.) Talk to your supervisor or manager and ask if he or she has advice about how to handle it. Tell your supervisor that you feel shut out and as though you’re not wanted there because of the actions of the other employees. More than likely your supervisor does speak the other language at least a little and may want to discuss the issue to avoid having a problem at work. If you are an excellent employee that might add to the supervisor’s concern.If the other employees are having a negative impact on your ability to work because they don’t give you needed information or don’t help you when you ask for it, that is certainly something that should be corrected.

2.) Be the kind of coworker that others want to communicate with. It may too late for you to develop a friendly relationship, since this may have caused a long-term dislike between you and others. But, it may be possible to start over mentally. Show an interest in each person and attempt to use a few courtesy phrases in Spanish. An “hola” “gracias”, “por favor” and a few others, will show a good faith effort. They know you don’t speak the language, but at least you will be reaching out a bit.

3.) Take a hard look at your motivation about having them speak English. You said that this is the U.S. and our language is English. A walk through a shopping mall will remind you that isn’t the case everywhere. If you are primarily irritated that the others speak Spanish, not that you want to have a good working relationship with them, that might come through in your actions. When you have asked them not to speak Spanish, if you do it with a sound of anger or bitterness, that may be why they act as though they don’t hear you.Or, it could be that they are rude and using this to be mean and to gang-up verbally on someone who is not of their ethnicity. I’m not ruling that out, because I’ve seen it happen. You know best about how you have behaved toward the others in the past and how much you have tried to be a friend at work. Although the temptation to be irritated and angry may be strong and even justified, it will be in your best interests to go out of your way to be friendly, encouraging, supportive, gracious and helpful. I often mention the three things it takes to have influence at work, and those three things apply to this situation as well: You must be credible, you must be valuable and you must communicate effectively. That last part doesn’t necessarily require communicating in the same language all the time, but it does include the face to face effective actions and behaviors that communicate more than words can sometimes do. Best wishes to you with this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how this works out.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.