Language Discrimination and Bully-Boss

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about different language rules and bullying: she has been consistently rude, to the point of bullying (I have come home crying on average once a week). All of the members of the Spanish Department agree with the above statements and feel constantly bullied as well.

I work in the Spanish Department of a media research company. The Department consists of four Spanish-speakers and our boss, who doesn’t know any Spanish. Throughout the course of two years, my boss has instituted the following policies: 1) Cannot speak Spanish aloud in the workplace, but only through IM because Spanish is like a “secret language.” She admitted she didn’t care is this was inefficient. 2) Has separated us into different corners of the room. 3) Has recently banned us from having lunch together.

None of these policies were relayed by email or written text, but by word of mouth because she said she wanted to “protect” us from HR (despite several requests). Also, none of these policies has been applied to the English Department. On top of all of this, she has been consistently rude, to the point of bullying (I have come home crying on average once a week). All of the members of the Spanish Department agree with the above statements and feel constantly bullied as well. Am I overreacting or is could this be signs of discrimination?

Signed, Speak Spanish

Dear Speak Spanish:

You speak of two problems: discrimination and a bully boss. Might both of these problems be more in your head than real? Possibly, but probably they are real at least in part. Let’s look at discrimination. Please tell me if your department of media research consists of only four Spanish-speaking individuals and your boss. If I understand you, your boss has assigned each of you Spanish-speakers to four corners of the room, rather than close enough that you might converse.

Is that discrimination or simply a way to prevent needless chatter and to force you four to concentrate your attention to the job of media research? The rule that you can’t lunch together probably is discriminatory, but likely it too is rooted in your boss’s thinking that you four need to improve your English and will not do that if you don’t practice it with non-Spanish speakers. Might that be her motivation for the lunchroom rule?

Is that discrimination? Probably. But it is wise? Probably it has a value, however, socially frustrating. Should you complain to Human Resources about the four-corner assignments and the lunchroom rule? That is a decision you four will have to make. Should you by-pass her and go to HR? Going to HR won’t endear you to your boss, but should HR choose to intervene, it might make her ease up on her non-Spanish speaking and lunchroom rules. As to the problem of bullying, in what ways does she bully?

Have you examples of what she does that brings you to tears? Have you confronted her? For example if she, shouts and/or curses at you, have you reacted by saying, “Alice, please stop shouting and cussing me. Just say what you want and I’ll do my best to correct what’s troubling you.” You say that you four are agreed that you think your boss’s rules are unreasonable and that she bullies. If so, have you the courage to meet with her to voice your displeasure? Apparently, you have conferred among yourselves, but haven’t confronted her. You four will have to continue to resent her rules and bullying until and if you determine to confront her and/or seek HR investigation of these two matters. Rather than gossip about these rules and your boss’s bullying, might it not be better to request that she meet with you about your discontent?

Your question to us implies that you have avoided asserting your self. Rather probably you have told your family and friends about how unhappy you are or have suffered the humiliation inwardly. If you are unhappy enough to act, first log what you find as bullying and then decide how you want to respond. You can voice your request that she speak to you respectfully. If you do so firmly, she might come to realize that is not the best way to boss. Bully bosses bully because it works. If it does not work, it is possible that they can learn to change. Changing habits that have worked for a long time, of course is not changed in a day. You and your coworkers will have to decide if you should go to your boss’ boss and/or to HR should your bully boss not change when firmly confronted. It is then that you request an investigation of her rules and bullying behavior. In our Q &As, you will see that I have time and again suggested that work group problems can be prevented and resolved by talk about talk.

By this I mean that how coworkers and bosses communicate all too often is rarely a matter of discussion. Work groups need to make their own do and don’t communication rules about how they might work most effectively. Rather than mumbling to one another about boss-imposed rules they don’t like, coworkers can insist that their boss take time out to hear their concerns. Such a time-out session works if a work group will come to an agreement on do and don’t rules about how they talk to each other and to with the boss. In your case, the issue is isolation and non-Spanish speaking boss-made rules. You and your coworkers either must bite your tongues and swallow the boss’s rules or give voice to what rules you think are reasonable, civil and effective.Not infrequently, employees assume that they must accept the rules given them, and for good reason. We have learned to obey and all too rarely have we learned to think that we can shape our work environment. Our work environment is not something set in stone. It is not something like the weather that we can’t do something about. We don’t have to pray for sunshine or rain. We can shape the space in which we work. Sometimes that entails repainting the walls, binging in green plants and works of art. More importantly shaping the kind of space in which we work should entail hammering out the rules of what is means to collaborate civilly and effectively.

Does your question mean you are ready to shape your work place to be one in which you can be happy rather that fearful and stressed? If you are review more of the Q&As on our site, such as See Co-Worker Yells At Me! or Being Humiliated At Work

Also click on the name of my associate Tina Lewis Rowe on our home page and study several of her posted articles, such as Are Your Opinions Carved In Stone? Or When Have You Had The Most Fun At Work? Working scared and working bullied is no way to work. I predict you can make a difference with polite assertiveness. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. It is evident that you and your workgroup don’t have a sense of what wego can mean, and it is time you do.

Follow Up: In my question I tried to boil things down to the objectives and keep it simple. However, I do have more information about this. The rules she told us were told by mouth and even though I requested an email summary of them, she refused because she wanted to “protect” me against HR, who could fire me if I bent the rules. All of our work had been done right consistently. Even at my annual review, she could only cite my “attitude” and “tone” towards her as a problem. When I asked her to be more specific, she couldn’t. She even rated me as the lowest in editing skills, which is odd since I scored the highest in an editing test among all the editors in the company.

I don’t think her aim is instructional. I graduated with a BA and MA in English and was originally hired as an English editor. As for the bullying, she has called me several names and tried to admit to things that didn’t happen. For about a year, I would come home crying at least once a week. When I refused to sign her annual review of me cause it was inaccurate, she exploded and tried to tell me that I couldn’t add an addendum to it and that I had to sign it.

She even told me that in her 7 years of managerial experience she has never had that happen and it cannot be done. All of this was untrue since I verified with HR in the morning. Ultimately, she had to add the addendum to the review.Ever since my first meeting with her about work-related issues ended up with me crying during and after it. I have kept a notebook with emails and notes on behavior that I deemed unprofessional. I talked to her about my concerns and she dismissed them, attempting to justify herself but ending up contradicting herself. I went above her head to her manager twice, both times it just made it worse. I also visited the EEOC about the discrimination and they thought it was enough to file a charge, but at the time I was pregnant and could not afford to risk my job. I have just recently contacted the main HR person of the global corporation (my company is just a branch of it). I had to give them my name and they said that her behavior was ridiculous and manipulative and that they would have to contact the HR person of my company immediately.

I’m probably gonna’ get burned from all of this, but I believe it was the right thing to do. Now, I’m simply afraid of retaliation. But, I have also sought some legal counsel. So, I’m trying to do this the right way.

Reply: Thank you for adding more detail to your query. For now it appears you have your situation under investigation. We wish you the best in this and that you can see it through without more distress. I know bossed/boss conflict is not easily resolved and I doubt that yours will ever be other than adversarial. Might it be possible for you to be transferred within your company to where you could start anew? Please keep us posted.

William Gorden