Workplace Multilingualism – Part 2, Managing Multiple Languages to Benefit an Organization

When employees use several languages to communicate it is usually referred to as workplace multilingualism and becomes an issue when used to exclude co-workers and clients.

Vincent and Harriet narrated their story of how two sales associates attempted to sell to them two slightly damaged laptop computers and used a single serial number to dupe a computer store.

When they expressed interest in purchasing two new laptops, the sales associates immediately changed their conversation into their ethnic language before conducting the transaction. Unsuspecting that what they had conspired using their ethnic language, on their way home they reflected on the strange behaviour of the sales associates. On checking their purchase receipts and computers, they realized the computers were slightly damaged and the same serial number was used on their two purchase receipts. They quickly returned the computers to the store and complained to the Store Manager who detected the fraud. This is just one instance of where the use of other languages in the workplace could be used to the detriment of clients and an organization.

Despite some of these negative stories, having employees with different languages in the workplace could be competitive advantage.

Perspectives on Multilingualism in the Workplace

Due to changes in the demography of countries and diversity of the workforce, there is the need to provide models of acceptable practices for using multiple languages in the workplace. Issues associated with multilingualism in the multicultural workplace are enough to erode the gains from diversity in a competitive global market. Culturally diverse employees without rules or models to ensure the appropriate use of languages have posed challenges to Human Resources Practitioners as they justify the use of restrictions and avoid charges of discrimination. The foregoing serves as no more than a brief introduction to the complicated issues of language based rules imposed upon employees of diverse national origins by some employers.

Most national legislation prohibits language discrimination based on national origin and it is under this that most lawsuits addressing monolingual or single language rules in the workplace are considered. In the United States, unlike Canada, there have been several legal challenges to the use of language rules and policies in the workplace. The courts in some of these jurisdictions have provided precedents on the application of language rules. Some legal decisions point to the proper application of language rules where job duties involved are closely interwoven with the use of the language. Legal experts have held that enforcing language rules at all times in the workplace makes the terms of employment burdensome and may create an “atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation based on national origin which could result in a discriminatory working environment”. Language restrictions have also been upheld where the use of the single language is meant to harmonize employee relations within the working unit.

In Canada, English and French are the (only) two official languages and both have important consequences for business. Given the official status of both languages, bilingualism in Canada confers advantages in professional placement in employment of employees. Multilingualism in Canada is often seen as a completely separate issue. Employees in Canada have no restraints using their ethnic languages when communicating in social settings with people who understand them. The problems arise in employment relations when languages are used inappropriately in the workplace.

Our research has not unearthed any significant Canadian literature on practices adopted by organizations to curtail the inappropriate use of languages in the workplace. There is some developing practice to institute policies on the use of languages in the workplace more as a guide to employees. This being the case does not mean there are no problems associated with multilingualism in Canadian workplaces.

Below is a statement from an article that addressed issues associated with multilingualism in the workplace:

Language use helps develop social bonds,”says Cristina Rodrguez, assistant professor of law at New York University School of Law and author of the article Language Diversity in the Workplace. Published in a 2006 edition of the Northwestern University Law Review. She says, “English-only rules might hinder the development of relationships with co-workers, the relationship between the workplace and the community in which it is located, and even the ability of language communities to sustain their existence.”

Some Human Resources Practitioners recommend the following when it becomes imperative to institute a work language rule:

English-only policies remain a risky proposition, and employers should consider them only if they can be justified by a demonstrable and legitimate business necessity. Even when business necessity justifies an English-only rule, employers must apply and enforce it narrowly so as not to burden bilingual employees or risk creating a hostile work environment.”  – HR Magazine, April 2006 SHRM

Look out for Part 3 that provides solutions to manage employees with multiple languages and to leverage them to the benefit of your organization.

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