Sunday, July 13, 2014

Language barrier puts workers on the defensive

February 16. 2013 3:44PM
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Q.: Many Hispanic people hold management positions in the government agency where I work. These managers often speak Spanish in front of employees who only speak English. This makes us very uncomfortable, since we're afraid they may be talking about us. We're not sure how to approach this, because some of these managers are at a very high level.

A.: As our country has grown increasingly diverse, language differences have become more of an issue. Under federal law, employees have the right to speak any language they choose during breaks and lunch, but English may be required on the job if management can demonstrate a business necessity. In everyday practice, however, the best way to handle this sensitive subject is with empathy for all concerned.

When people hear co-workers conversing in a different language, they automatically wonder if they are missing important information or being personally discussed. That's just human nature. It is therefore undeniably rude to hold work-related conversations in a language which others cannot understand.

On the other hand, for people in a new country, using their native tongue is comfortable and relaxing. Americans working in China, for example, are undoubtedly delighted when they encounter English-speaking colleagues. So co-workers should not take offense when people who share a language are having an informal chat.

If language differences are becoming divisive, a polite request for change is usually the most effective strategy. For example: "We're a little hesitant to bring this up, but the rest of us feel left out when you and Maria are speaking in Spanish. Would you mind using English when we're discussing business issues?"

But since approaching your higher-level managers directly could be a bit risky, you will need to find a helpful ally. Fortunately, every government agency is linked to a human resources department, so look for an HR manager who is willing to address your concerns while keeping your identity confidential.

Q: I have a co-worker who refuses to work with me, even though I am her supervisor. When I ask her to do something, she ignores me. If she thinks I've made a mistake, she immediately runs to inform my boss. I would like to tell him about her behavior, but I'm not sure what to say.

A: This woman is obviously sending you a message that she does not accept you as her supervisor. Talking with your boss is definitely the right move, because you will never resolve this issue without his support. When you meet with him, factually describe the situation and ask for his help.

For example: "Mary simply refuses to acknowledge that I am supposed to be supervising her. She seems to resent my instructions and sometimes ignores me completely. I would appreciate it if you could meet with us to help her understand my role."

Let me also point out that you must be clear in your own mind about your supervisory status. If you continue to think of this woman as your "co-worker," she is less likely to regard herself as your employee.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." Send in questions and get free coaching tips at

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