Original URL: http://www.arizonarepublic.com/opinions/articles/1005pimentel05.html

Language police on warpath again

By O. Ricardo Pimentel
The Arizona Republic columnist
Oct. 5, 2002

If Latinos are bunched up in the office and they're speaking Spanish, they're more than likely not talking about you. Honest.

If they're chortling, it's probably because someone just called someone else in the group gŁey. Sort of like dude, but cruder.

You know, sometimes we just want to practice what little Spanish we speak.

We're not being rude. If you were part of the conversation, we would speak English. Last I heard, however, eavesdropping is rude too.

This reassurance comes because, if you are an employer, I really want to spare you a lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Like one that came recently for RD's Drive-in in Page.

The offending language, however, was not Spanish this time but Navajo. This is reportedly the first time the commission has filed such a suit based on a Native American language.

According to The Republic story by Judy Nichols, most of the employees of the father-son burger place and many of its customers are Navajo. After perusing an EEOC Web site for guidance on how to establish an English-only business, the
owners allegedly posted this notice:

"The owner of this business can speak and understand only English. While the owner is paying you as an employee, you are required to use English at all times. The only exception is when the customer cannot understand English. If you feel
unable to comply with this requirement, you may find another job."

In other words, speak Navajo only if it makes me money.

Son Steve Kidman said they took this step because the Navajo speakers were talking about other employees and these employees threatened to quit.

EEOC attorney David Lopez says this seeming concern for employee morale is commonly cited by businesses that quash non-English speaking in the workplace.

The problem: No one worries about the morale of those employees more comfortable speaking among themselves in their own language.

There was some Navajo cussing going on, according to the owners. OK, this is believable. Even dedicated non-Spanish speakers seem to have taken the time to learn the cuss words.

But here's a better solution than banning native languages: Counsel the employees that gossiping and backbiting can be rude in any language and tell them that no cussing will be allowed, period.

And then practice what you preach in English. Of course, none of us has heard either gossiping, backbiting or cussing going on in any of our workplaces in English. Just doesn't happen, right?

Yes, for many, this suit filed by the Phoenix EEOC office will simply come under the ever-popular category of "political correctness run amok."

Some folks will be outraged because of the appearance that the EEOC is telling owners how to run their businesses.

No, they're telling them what is permissible under the law. You see, we are generally prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin. Language can be one of the indicators and vital components of these things.

The employees who refused to sign the notice were allegedly fired. The owners say they quit, but one of the employees told the newspaper that she was told to clock out and go home when she refused to sign.

She also said she never heard the Navajo speakers say anything vulgar or insulting.

But here's the thing. We are in fact multilingual and always have been. Even in those vaunted good old days, we were speaking everything from German and Italian to Yiddish and English. Even in workplaces.

If English is a requirement of the job, require it and make sure employees use it when needed. But if employees are speaking to co-workers over the water cooler and making themselves understood, well, employers own our labor, not
our tongues and certainly not our minds. If our work is substandard, prove it and fire us.

If our work is satisfactory, however, and the only gripe is that we speak to co-workers in a language employers don't understand, then learn the language or get over the paranoia and the notion that you're interesting enough to talk about.

If you can't, gracias a Dios the EEOC is there.

Reach Pimentel at ricardo.pimentel@arizonarepublic.com or (602)
444-8210. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays


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