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Bilingual Employees: When Spanish at Work Causes Conflict

Q: “I have several bilingual employees who speak Spanish at work among themselves. Most of my workers speak little or no Spanish, and some have complained because they feel uncomfortable when they can’t understand the conversations going on around them. How should I handle this?”
A: I am sure that the language skills of your Spanish-speaking employees were probably one of the reasons you hired them. Being bilingual is a huge advantage in today’s business world, not just for the employee but for your business because it allows your company to communicate with a larger percentage of the marketplace.

While some native Spanish speakers are very comfortable communicating in English, for others, it is one of the many new adventures they encounter when migrating to the U.S. I would be willing to bet that your employees make an effort to speak English most of the time, but when presented with the opportunity to speak Spanish, they take it in an instant. It is familiar, comfortable, relaxed, and most of all easy. They don’t need to be on a constant quest for the correct word or term to use; they can get to the point fast and with complete confidence of saying exactly what they mean. I am sure you’ve experienced this feeling when visiting a foreign country and suddenly running into a fellow English speaker.

As an employer or co-worker of individuals who speak Spanish among themselves from time to time, you must try to have some empathy. Put yourself in their shoes for a while. Imagine yourself living and working in a foreign country where no one else speaks your language. Suddenly a couple of new American hires join you. How would you feel? What would be your first reaction? Of course, it would only be natural for you to begin talking to them in English.

Now, to the Latino employees, I would ask: How do you feel when the people next to you begin talking in a language you don’t understand? If they begin to laugh… do you feel they are laughing at you? It happened to me a while back. While consulting with the local Hyundai dealer in Guatemala City, we received two visitors from their home office in Korea. Needless to say, I don’t know a single word in Korean. We communicated in English for most of the time, but during certain moments, the two gentlemen turned to speak to each other in their mother tongue. I am certain that it was a very nice break for them, given the continuous effort they were making to speak in a language they knew but were not that familiar with. It is very likely that they were just making small talk among themselves, but from where I was standing, they were most certainly talking about me, at least a couple of times.

Hopefully, everyone will be a little bit more understanding about the other’s reality and do their best to make the situation more comfortable. To the Spanish-speaking Hispanic employees, I say: Put your English skills into practice continually. It will help with your fluency and vocabulary, which will make you even more marketable. Try being your own simultaneous translator while at work. If you want to communicate in Spanish with your friends at work, do so, but immediately repeat the phrase in English for the benefit of those around you who don’t speak Spanish.

For Non-Hispanics who are confounded by their Latino co-workers speaking a language you don’t understand, I recommend that you begin to learn a second language. It will make you more marketable right away and rapidly eliminate the current discomfort you are experiencing.

As an employer, you can facilitate this process by offering optional language classes to your workers as a benefit. Everyone will thank you, and you will soon notice it in your bottom line!

Juan Tornoe


26 comments

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  • I can understand where you are coming from, but I work with 6 women who speak Spanish. I speak English, Armenian, Russian but I don’t speak their language. They often talk amongst themselves and sometimes look at me and make remarks like stupid bitch and such.
    Knowing the bad words I understand but I can’t to anything about it. I left my last work because of a similar issue, and this job has the same enviorment where minority judges minority for not being one of them. I should not feel obligated to learn Spanish just to work comfortably in the US. Many however say… Learn Spanish. How about teach your employees to be respectful and speak English amongst themseves when you know they are perfectly capable.

    • I totally agree this is NOT Mexico. Too many games. Sick of them, send me back if they don’t like USA the laws must change or lawsuits will evolve and it needs to happen, I promise they would push us out of our own country if they could. Enough. They have sued enough of us for discrimination.

      I am sick of these people coming here, getting our support and bringing their hatred, language and bs discrimination suits. It’s time we sued them. And kicked their aholios OUT of America. Sick of the ugly ones.

      • Not all people who speak Spanish it’s from Mexico get your facts straight, for your information America doesn’t have a official language.
        So if you really concern what other speak about you learn other language.
        A lot of other countries their not only speak there language but they teaching their kids English.
        Maybe instead of trying to kick people from here let’s just try to fix system and teach our kids more than one language

    • I completely agree. If an English-speaking American went to live, not just visit, in another country with a different language, that American would have to learn that language. We should not expect people of another country to learn English for us if we’re going to live there. Same should be expected of anyone who speaks another language living in America, they need to learn English. This is why anyone who lives in America and doesn’t speak English can’t get very far.

  • AN EMPLOYER IS NOT AN EDUCATOR – AND THAT COSTS – MONEY – how nice of you to spend other peoples money – can I HAVE YOUR CREDIT CARD – I WANT TO BUY A ROUND OF SHOTS – AS YOU ARE SO GENEROUS WITH OTHER PEOPLES MONEY
    you pointed out – that they speak their language because they are not comfortable speaking english
    LEARN IT – THEY LIVE IN AMERICA!!!
    how about – you move to a country – and adapt – not expect people to change to you.
    I work in an er where there are spanish speaking only patients – I am learning spanish – but not to talk behind their backs.
    and talking about booty and ass – in spanish – or what a pendaho someone is – is not an appropriate reason to force a company to change english only policy – AS SO MANY MEXICANS IN NEW MEXICO feel it is…

    • I agree, I happen to know my 3 co-workers were born in America and speak english fluently. But choose to speak Spanish which I know enough of to know when I’M BEING TALKED ABOUT. I call BS on this solution.

      • There should be a common language all staff speaks in order to keep good communication and team work, and if you work in the US then that common language should be english. For people not wanting to play by that simple rule, its very simple : fire them.

    • It’s still rude behavior, it’s still disrespectful, and those people don’t have the guts to say anything in English to a person’s face.

    • Exactly. People have private conversations while at work. Not necessarily for your ears. So will you fire people that are whispering. It means its none of your business. Get a life they can talk about on the phone too.What will you do about that? So again if they are not talking to you mind your business.

  • I am a nutrition services manager of a school district. I have employees that speak Spanish and some that speek Tagalog. I only speak English. Everyone else is capable of speaking English but they choose not to. I know at times they are gossiping and just being hateful. It’s ridiculous and very rude, and they don’t see that. How can you not get that?

  • What a MORON you are. Expecting us to learn another language. I was born & raised in Miami and know a lot of Spanish and speak a little (ONLY when I Travel) as I “Tried” to do when I was in France to speak THEIR Language. We are in america & should speak ENGLISH. My forefathers had to learn English & were PROUD to try to adapt to the ways of the new country. Latins here speak english but REFUSE to. They should be PROUD to live in our great country & adapt to our ways & that includes English! Speaking any other language around english only people is very rude & don’t fool yourself it IS intentional they are excluding you.

    • I agree! I’m gaving this very problem at work. I’ve told my co-workers multiple times speak english, it’s rude and exclusionary. They still continue to do it. Learn and speak the language of where you live. It’s completely inconsiderate. And I don’t see why I’m reqii5red to adapt, they should. If I lived in Germany I’m learning German.

  • That’s just rude. I’m bilingual and very well versed in other cultures etc. and am tired of being told how everyone must kowtow to Spanish speakers all the time. I speak Spanish… fluently, but enough is a enough. Even in Europe, the unspoken rule when I was there was to speak the majority language to avoid offending others.

    At work the majority of the employees are Latinos and they’re friendly and gracious but during work they only talk to one another, even the Latina manager spends more time chit chatting with other Latinos than with non-Latinos and it’s demoralizing for the non-Latino employees. Oh and don’t get me started on that working class Latina tendency to favor any and all males over female employees. The men know they can do anything they want without consequences and have even gotten people fired based on their “opinions”. Please.

    During break, and outside of work, people can socialize with anyone they wish but during work an effort should be made to talk to everyone.

    My experiences with Latinos in the US workplace have left me with next to no interest in Latinos apart from literature. I pretend I don’t know Spanish now. Viva Espana!

  • I have the opposite problem. I’m bilingual and use my skills to speak to clients who don’t speak English. My boss initially was ok with me using my skills to communicate with customers. So I did. However this supervisor left and now my new supervisor made me stop because nobody else speaks it and they are unable to help these clients when I’m off…

  • I think it’s rude to speak another language when everyone else can only understand one language (English). I might not have time, money or maybe I have a learning disability that stops me from taking a proper class to learn another language, it’s my problem or a responsible parties if he or she can’t navigate in other countries because they don’t speak Spanish, French or English. In the United States are language here is English, we should all welcome other languages but what if I spoke in code with my boss and nobody else could understand are confo, I believe it is kind of rude.

    • “maybe I have a learning disability that stops me from taking a proper class to learn another language…” It’s a good thing you were not born in another country, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to communicate.

      • Well I assume she would’ve learned the language of the country she was born in had it not been America. As a person who is very fascinated in all aspects of language, I do find it frustrating when my coworkers (99% of whom can’t speak a lick of english) gossip for hours all day. Breaks in the cafeteria consist solely of like 20 people talking over each other.

        Luckily, I work at the same place as my father and we retreat to the car to have an english break.

        I dont care if someone appears to be talking bad about me to my face, but what I do have a problem with is when they look at me and repeat a sentence over and over that I’m not understanding. I smile and leave.

  • I just started a new job where I am being trained by a Spanish employee that hardly speaks any English. Really? Nice girl, but I wonder how personnel could hire someone we can’t all communicate with.

  • I work with Spanish speaking coworkers who were born in America! Spanish is their SECOND language or at least equivocal to their first language (English). They speak Spanish behind my back, not because they feel more comfortable, but because they do not want me to hear what they’re saying. It’s the equivalent of whispering and it’s rude. It’s also against company policy, but I keep my mouth shut so I don’t offend them, which is so backwards! Funny thing is they complained about other coworkers speaking Portuguese to each other.
    Also, I shouldn’t have to learn another language due to my coworkers lack of professionalism.

  • I worked in The Netherlands at an institute where English was considered the working/business language. My boss and other colleagues from Spain refused to speak English or the language of the host country (Dutch). They were definitely not hired for their Spanish speaking skills. I understand that it’s good to have empathy or to try to learn a second language=Spanish (which I tried when working there), but it is just so frustrating. It really hinders working as a team, because I couldn’t understand what was happening around me- I couldn’t use information that others were discussing for my own work. I couldn’t see if I could help others because I didn’t understand them. This went on for at least two years.

  • Dear Mr. Turnoe:, I work somewhere that English Spanish is utilized. Now, we are in a diverse area. I make great effort to comprehend their needs of others but I am dealing with a difficult colleague, newly hired. Apparently this colleague speaks a language I do not speak, but I like diversity, but it is not amicable. This colleague feels I favor my people and speak behind her/him. Now, , my age was also arisen towards me and this colleague is a supervisor. I have been there much longer.
    I’ve tried to be nice, buts it’s quite clear to be disregarded.
    then once I say something to them boss, she like, I swear I didn’t hear you but if you have a problem working with me, I can take care of it….in front of clients.
    What’s best steps to overcome such a person?. As I feel the 60’s has returned with this person, it’s demeaning. We should not be hating but adjusting and respect.
    What’s best here?

  • Hi, I work at a job, where all employees and boss are Spanish, and talk Spanish. I understand ? , they have trouble speaking English.. Some days they use GOOD English skills and other days more Spanish.. I feel paranoid, I am trying too learn Spanish.. There was a report by customer too me.. That said” they never wished I worked there.. I don’t discriminate.. Please Help Mary

  • I just quit my job because I was being discriminated against by Mexican workers harassing me, spreading rumors and speaking about me in a derogatory way, even called me a nigger in Spanish. Obvious I am black, and there are over 200 workers and only two blacks working the whole company, mostly hispanic and they took advantage by speaking around me about my color, joking to the others. They can’t speak a word of English. All the bosses are white Americans, and the Mexicans say racial slurs about them openly too because they can’t understand them. As a Christian this was hard to cope with and made me very uncomfortable to work around Mexicans and question do they deserve to be here with that sort of demeanor and nature. To on purpose harass someone in your language is wrong and your illegal.
    Shame on the companies that hire these types of low life people knowing there illegal. My wife is from Chile and we did everything the right way to get her residency and permission to work in the US, they cross the borders have many kids and take jobs from African American and we have to pay taxes for there kids education programs. My grandfather who is black fought in WW2, he was part of the 92nd infantry in Italy right before Normandy doomsday. My family shed blood for this country, went through racism with white and black issues only to find some Mexicans can segregate, come here illegal and be racist too towards blacks. I’m a shame to even raise the American flag and I agree with Trump. Karma is around the corner if you choose to live this way and establish yourself here illegal.

  • I work with 4 spanish speaking co workers plus my lead …I do not speak spanish..and i am excluded in conversations..one lady is purposly rude towards me…any ideas?plus they all know fluent english but chose to speak spanish to make me feel left out…

  • I’m the only none speaking spànish employee I think per the union agreement employee should be speaking english when on the clock working or if there is a non speaking spanish person Around.
    I fill very unconforable and stressful. So,should hr and mgmt inforce that rule?

    When we do our daily meeting its All in english and All our receips are in english