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Multilingualism in the workplace – Part 2, Managing multiple languages ​​for the benefit of an organization

When employees use multiple languages ​​to communicate, it is generally referred to as multilingualism in the workplace and becomes a problem when used to exclude co-workers and clients.

Vincent and Harriet related their story of how two sales associates tried to sell them two slightly damaged laptops and used a single serial number to fool a computer store.

When they expressed interest in purchasing two new laptops, the sales associates immediately switched their conversation to their ethnic language prior to making the transaction. Not suspecting what they had conspired using their ethnic language, on the way home they reflected on the strange behavior of the sales associates. When reviewing their purchase receipts and computers, they found that the computers were slightly damaged and that the same serial number was used on both of their purchase receipts. They quickly returned the computers to the store and complained to the store manager who spotted the fraud. This is just one case 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 a competitive advantage.

Perspectives on multilingualism in the workplace

Due to changes in country demographics and the diversity of the workforce, there is a need to provide models of acceptable practice for the use of multiple languages ​​in the workplace. The problems associated with multilingualism in the multicultural workplace are enough to erode the benefits of diversity in a competitive global marketplace. Culturally diverse employees without rules or models to ensure appropriate use of languages ​​have posed challenges for HR professionals as they justify the use of restrictions and avoid charges of discrimination. The above is but a brief introduction to the complicated problems of language-based rules imposed on employees of various national backgrounds by some employers.

Most of the national legislation prohibits linguistic discrimination based on national origin and it is because of this that most of the claims that address 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. Courts in some of these jurisdictions have provided precedents on the application of language standards. Some legal decisions point to the proper application of language rules where the job tasks involved are closely intertwined with the use of the language. Legal experts have argued that enforcing language rules at all times in the workplace makes conditions of employment onerous and can create an “atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation based on national origin that could result in a discriminatory work environment “. Language restrictions have also been maintained when the use of the single language is intended to harmonize employee relations within the work unit.

In Canada, English and French are the (only) two official languages ​​and both have important business implications. Given the official status of both languages, bilingualism in Canada confers advantages in job placement for employees. Multilingualism in Canada is often viewed as a completely separate issue. Employees in Canada are not restricted from using their ethnic languages ​​when communicating in social settings with people who understand them. Problems arise in labor relations when languages ​​are used inappropriately in the workplace.

Our research has not uncovered any significant Canadian literature on practices adopted by organizations to reduce 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 for employees. Just because this is the case does not mean that 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:

The use of language helps develop social bonds“says Cristina Rodríguez, assistant professor of law at New York University School of Law and author of the article Linguistic Diversity in the Workplace. Published in a 2006 issue of the Northwestern University Law Review. She says, “English-only rules can hamper 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 maintain their existence.”

Some HR professionals recommend the following when it becomes imperative to institute a working language rule:

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

Look for Part 3 that provides solutions for managing employees with multiple languages ​​and leveraging them for the benefit of your organization.

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