Second Language on the Job (Part 1)

I’m going to say it outright: I’m not in favour of speaking a second language in the workplace. I believe* that employers who permit speaking a second language (on shift or on break), when there are others around who do not understand that language, are making a decision that often leads to the opposite of the desired results. Second Language Workplace Civility

Over the past several months I’ve been privileged to deliver close to 30 workplace civility training sessions to highly dedicated leaders and front-line staff working in large Toronto healthcare centres. Folks in these environments come from richly diverse cultural backgrounds, and the thorny issue of speaking a second-language came up repeatedly (and fiercely), as it does in many other environments where Bar-David Consulting provides training or consulting services. Many participants in these workplace civility training sessions urged me to write about this issue.

So, let us start this important conversation, as difficult and controversial as it may be.

Here’s what I believe: your ultimate goal should be to create a diverse workplace that actually works, not a collection of people of diverse backgrounds who inevitably fragment along rigid cultural and ethnic lines, all-too-often leading to deep friction.

Speaking a foreign language in the presence of those who can’t understand it is goes against the fundamental principle of inclusion. In fact, it triggers exclusion and alienation. It’s bad for people and it’s bad for business.

Here’s how it manifests in real life: the person who doesn’t speak that other language sits there at the lunchroom table, staring at his or her sandwich, feeling totally left out as colleagues converse and laugh in ways this person cannot understand. Hmm, not too good for team dynamics, nor for collaboration on the job when break is over.

In reality, everyone – and I mean everyone – has at one point or another (even if only for a fleeting moment) thought this: “Those people are talking about me!“.  Hmm, definitely not conducive to building trust and a sense of safety amongst co-workers, or making people feel good about their work environment overall.

And in reality, every one of the people (yes, everyone) speaking the other language has at one point or another actually spoken in that language about the unsuspecting person sitting or working right beside them. Maybe they only did it rarely. Maybe they only did it briefly. Maybe it was only a slightly dismissive comment. But they sure did it.

If you’ve ever been there, either as the foreign-language speaker, or as the ‘outsider’, you already know that the above is true.

People have a right to feel psychologically safe in the workplace. When feeling safe, they are free to perform the job they were hired to do without fear and upset. Feeling included is a crucial part of psychological safety.

So why do so many organizations have to contend with ongoing problems related to speaking a second language? Why do so many managers and human resources professionals receive perennial complaints and have to deal with deep rifts within teams?

This problem persists because employers analyze the issue using an incomplete set of lenses, which leads them to solutions that don’t really work.

For more on these incomplete lenses, stay tuned for the next blog entry — let’s think our way together through this matter, step by step.

* Some exceptions require a more nuanced approach, such as bilingual work environments, and workplaces such as manufacturing floors, where the majority of employees speak little or no English.

And as always, if you wish to discuss the challenges your organization faces, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

This entry was posted in Blog, Leadership, Respectful Workplace, Workplace Incivility. Bookmark the permalink.

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