Is Being an Only English Speaking Office Manager in a Farsi-Speaking Start-Up Discrimination?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being an only English speaking Office Manager/Controller:

I am the Office Manager/Controller/a little bit of everything position in a small startup company in California. There are 4 individuals in the office, The CEO/Founder, Production Manager, Sales Manager and myself. There are also about 10-15 outside sales reps., but the issue I am having doesn’t concern them at all. In the office, each of us has about the same level of responsibility, (other then CEO obviously) and work on 75% of the projects together. However, I am the only female, and the only, white, American born, English-only speaking individual out of us 4. The CEO/Founder, and my two co-workers, are Persian and speak Farsi. They speak Farsi in the office almost all of the time, for business, personal, jokes, lunch, everything. I have asked on MULTIPLE occasions that we speak English for work related things as I do not speak Farsi and am getting left out of conversations.

Obviously, this makes me uncomfortable and I feel completely left out, but it is also causing problems and making my job harder. They will discuss a new change to a procedure or document, make the change, implement it, and I find out when I go to print it, or someone asks me about it, or the lack of complete planning (IE my accounting input), causes a problem that will be brought to me to fix. These situations are coming up more and more regularly so I don’t feel my request is unfair or unfounded. At this point I don’t know what to do.

My last request to them was just 2 weeks ago and was in what we call our “Executive Group Meeting.” In the meeting I asked very kindly and with the explanation as to why with examples of things that have gone on and they agreed and the Sales Manager even said he would translate for me when they didn’t know the right English word to use. Well that was 2 weeks ago and I would say it was, “better” for about 1-2 days. Now it is right back to where we were. They speak 90-95% in Farsi. What do you suggest I do as my request 2 weeks ago was my 2nd-3rd request already…. Is this discrimination? I feel like my request is being “acknowledged” in the moment of the request, but goes out the window within an hour for whatever reason it may be…..

Signed–White Girl Out

Dear White Girl Out:

I struggled to suggest accommodation for a similar question last year, see Losing my Mind Because of Punjabi Coworkers

Your request is a bit different–the Persian founder and two others in the Executive team of this start-up, who all speak Farsi almost all the time, did not promise to speak English in work-related matters. Your request was partially successful for only one or two days. Shifting from one’s native language to a not-native language is not easy. You have learned that. This is not discrimination. I checked with an H.R. expert in California. You can check further with your state’s Department of Labor. You chose to work with those in this start-up. Individuals who begin a small business in this country are not required to speak English nor are they required to do that with all their employees.

You were hired because of your “Office Manager/Controller/a little bit of everything expertise.”  I can appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to belatedly learn of a change and implementation of a procedure. Your “Executive Group Meeting” in which you firmly explained why you needed English spoken for workplace issues was constructive, but habits such as speaking in one’s native language are not changed even over months and years.

If you want to continue to work there, you’ll have to tolerate being excluded and to seek translation to prevent and correct misunderstandings. You probably should be paid extra because of your English ability and the difficulty of coping with 95% Farsi.  You must weigh if your employment and pay are enough to not seek work elsewhere.

Please understand your signature as White Girl Out conveys the impression that you see yourself as a victim. I don’t see you as a victim unless when you were hired you were promised to not be excluded in procedural matters and that those with whom you work would communicate regarding work-related matters in English. Have you considered seeing your role as Office Manager and Language Specialist–one who patiently seeks clarification and verification of all matters necessary to make this start-up successful? If you can see your role that way, I predict you will become a value-added asset. Feel free to say this is easier said than done and to say if this perspective from the outside does not apply to your Farsi-dominated workplace. I will be interested learning what you do. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. –William Gorden