Could an employer ban employees from speaking Spanish while on the clock?

This is a hypothetical question, based on a small factory where a buddy of mine works. The shop has a few dozen employees, all of whom speak english, but some also speak spaninsh. Apparently some of the spanish speaking employees tend to speak amongst themselves in spanish some of the time (while working). Management suspects (very likely correctly) that a lot of what the employees say in spanish is complaining about other workers, the job, and management. The employees who do converse in spanish amongst each other, don’t do so all the time, and do speak english more often than not. To be honest, from what my buddy’s told me is that they only switch to spanish when they don’t want others to hear what they have to say.

Now, apparently management is considering baning speaking spanish on the job (except when it is necessary). They are even considering a series of penalties, starting with a verbal warning for the first instance, and progressing to termination.

This policy seems like a very bad idea to me, and sounds like an invite for some kind of complaint or lawsuit. My buddy isn’t so sure, and he thinks management would be fine implementing the policy and would get away with it just fine.

This shop is in the US, in Florida for the record. Also, some of the employees do have to be bilingual to deal with spanish speaking customers over the phone. However, most employees don’t have any contact with the public or customers at all, and the spanish conversations between employees wouldn’t be heard by any customers.

Is implementing a policy banning spanish speaking by employees in private conversations allowed by law? Or, is this something the employer could get in trouble for?

Native English speakers are a minority in my workplace. It’s over 50% Vietnamese, with a lot of Arabic speakers, a lot of Tagalog speakers, and a smattering of Cantonese, Spanish, and various other ones.

There is a policy that all work-related conversation be carried out in English, but people are free to speak other languages for small talk. I think this is quite reasonable as a compromise, for the following reasons:

  • Banning the use of a language is just creepy.
  • Most non-English speakers will voluntarily use English in the presence of somebody who can’t speak their language, just out of courtesy.
  • Most conversations are mundane crap about what the kids did last weekend rather than any sort of conspiracy or gossip, so as an English speaker, I almost welcome the fact that I can tune out a lot of stuff.
  • If people want to gossip about somebody who understands their language, believe me they can do it anyway.

The policy seems to work pretty well most of the time, and I don’t recall anybody ever having been disciplined for not adhering to it. Most people are pretty good about it.

I’ve worked in hospitals that required English to be spoken whenever patients were present.

Which is the case where my mother works. The clinic had an entire ban but some workers sued and they had to settle for the above. Most conversations really are mundane. People just get paranoid and assume things. What are people going to next? Ban whispering?

Exactly. And in fact, the “work-related” rule is completely ignored much of the time, and with the blessing of the English speakers too. I mean, if one language x speaker is saying to another language x speaker, “Can you take these papers upstairs, please?”, it’s usually very obvious to anybody present who doesn’t speak that language.

When there’s a problem or dispute, or something that might otherwise result in some seriously bad karma, like a harrassment accusation or whatever, then the English Only rule just automatically kicks in, and everybody understands the need for it. But day to day, it’s pretty free and easy, and nobody minds. Heck, I’ve worked with some of these people for seventeen years, and if as “evil foreigners” they were plotting my downfall, I reckon I’d have known about it by now.

I’ve had a couple of cases where people spoke in languages other than English thinking I wouldn’t understand and oopsied bigtime when I replied. I only remember one case where it was offensive (and not even to me, to a fourth person). Most of the time, conversations in LotE are just a manner of convenience and proficiency. An example: I’m native-level, but if I’m talking about cooking, I better be able to switch to Spanish. Cookbooks in English might as well be in ancient Klingon, often I don’t even understand half the list of ingredients. I’ve had quite a few conversations about food and recipes at work, and I’m not a cook.

I’ve had many more cases where the conversation was in a language people knew I udnerstood but they assumed I wouldn’t understand their obscure references… having been a lab tech before I went consultant means that I do understand those references juuuuust fine. These conversations have had much deeper Consequences than, say, a remark about “damn fine hips” in Mexican :stuck_out_tongue:

Hmm… how do you say “damn fine hips” in Mexican? My Mexican is pretty decent, but I can’t think of the term…

(what? I may very well have a use for it someday)

Well, the exact phrase was “buenas caderas, la gringa.”

The reply was “gracias”.

Him: :eek:

His mates: laughter and hoots

Him: “uh, sorry”.

Me: “no problem.”

The gringo who was showing me around the factory, once he stopped laughing: “she’s from Spain, guys.”

I have the same problem with cookbooks in Spanish. Well, aside from the ingredients I have no metric measuring devices. But for the ingredients, this site and this site have been invaluable. Of course they’re both Mexican Spanish and not Spanish Spanish, but they may work for you.

¿No tendrás fotos de las buenas caderas?

(Just kidding; that breaks the SDMB’s English only rule ;))

From GFactor’s post, I’m interested in this piece

I would assume from this section, if there was documented evidence of poor employee relations due to the language issue, then the rule might be legal.

That is an interesting point. As an HR person, I had generally heard that English only rules could only be legitimate for safety reasons. My intuition tells me that in addition to documenting poor workplace relations, management would also have to document that other, clearly nondiscriminatory, efforts had been made to resolve the issues. Then, maybe, possibly, the argument you made would have some sway. One thing some employers do is offer space to nonprofits to teach ESL and basic Spanish to their workers.

Agreed. I doubt an employer who lets animus build and then blames the non-English speakers would be able to establish business necessity. But see note 48 of the linked materials:

(Emphasis added.)

…and Korean hairdressers definitely shouldn’t insult a client in their native tongue when a Korean War veteran is in the shop and available to translate for the client.

Thank you, Balthisar!

King of the Hill? Good episode.

Reminds me of the Seinfeld where they get Jerry’s deaf girlfriend to lip read.

[hilarious (to me) ‘deaf-person accent’]
[/non-pc reference]

Well, speaking in a foreign language that you share with another is basically just whispering. I used to do it all the time in Spanish while I was in Germany with a friend of mine. I never got caught, because I only used it around people I knew couldn’t speak Spanish well enough. And the Spanish girls…well they are used to guys talking like that :smiley: They were cool, and never gave up our secrets. It was especially funny around the Mexicans, because they could obviously speak English to me at the same (if not maybe higher with some) level of communication that I we could in Spanish, but we’d switch to Spanish whenever it became necessary.

The point of that story is that if I wanna talk to you about something, and I only want you to know, I’ll email you, or write you or whatever. IM, why not? But Spanish only helps that and makes it more efficient with the problem that someone might understand that isn’t supposed to. I do understand that work-related conversations should take place in English. Even if you think it is between yourself and another spanish-speaker there could always be some situation where a third party overhears and says, “Hey didn’t you get that memo? We have changed that now.” Also, a third-part person might find some kind of information important too. If you know that someone is going to be doing something, then it might influence your choice of work for the day, etc. But if you aren’t in earshot (like if everyone has private offices) then you don’t really have to worry.

But yeah, English only because the non-spanish speaking employees don’t like it? Well, they are in for a lawsuit, sounds like.

Funny story. I went to the train station one day to buy some tickets, and a friend of mine from Monterrey (Mexico) and Madrid came with me, and waited outside while I was in the ticket office. When I came out I saw the police hanging around asking for my ID. After they realized what was up, they let us go (we were just students) But that was a bit weird, German cops profiling a Mexican and a Spaniard for speaking Spanish? What exactly could they be thinking, ETA? Wouldn’t ETA be speaking Basque? I mean I know that all policemen aren’t geniuses but I’d think the average German would know what Spanish sounds like. I can’t see how Spanish would raise any red flags either…Oh well…

I can’t wait until I get to travel and use Danish as a secret language. I’ve heard that nobody knows about that. Of course I’ve heard stories with Dutch people that you never know who knows what language, and have been caught embarrassed by it before.

We’re getting more and more Mexicans starting to work where I do. They gather into groups and speak Spanish. when the translators come around they join in in spanish. Seems to me they ,the translators, ought to speak in Spanish only when necessary. All other times they ought to speak in English. It doesn’t seem that even the long time non english speaking employees are getting to understand English.

I asked one of the translators if English lessons were available to these folks. She said yes but they like to workovertime so they can’t attend the lessons.

It really gets frustrating not being able to convey even the simplest instruction since they don’t understand. You don’t know if they are not understanding or are just saying screw you pal you’re not my boss.

I guess I need to be shown where it is that one has the right to be openly secretive in the workplace. It’s one thing to honestly be more comfortable talking in spanish, it’s another to use spanish as a way to be secretive amongst your coworkers. I’d consider that a potentially hostile work environment, and a lawsuit if management does nothing would be reasonable as well.

I work in a multi-cultural environment and while I consider us lucky that anyone can speak another language with anyone else. (Cuban, Laotian, Vietnames, Japanese, Korean, Russian, English (he’s the worst to understand) and who knows what else.

I’m pretty sure I’ve been cussed out in several languages. I live in a city that has a huge hispanic population, I have to push 1 for english no matter where I call. It isn’t uncommon to go to a store and have the person not speak english. I have seen instances where speaking another language is done EXACTLY to exclude the other people in the room. I have also witnessed someone using the language barrier to plead ignorance of something they damn well knew was wrong.

I don’t think it serves folks well to speak in their native language in the workplace. It hinders their english fluency. My neighbors behind me speak spanish, I never hear them speak english at all. You only get better with practice.

It is very frustrating to not get the service I am paying for because the person doesn’t speak english. I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but it does suck.