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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


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