English-Only Sign Gets Manager in Trouble

Discussion
Mar 18, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

What do they say about good intentions and the road to hell?

A 20-year old manager of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Yonkers, NY may have been doing the right thing when he responded to complaints about workers being disrespectful by speaking in
Spanish while waiting on customers. He just shouldn’t have put up a sign forbidding them to speak to each other in Spanish while speaking with one another behind the counter.

The manager Juan Chalco, himself a Spanish speaker born in Ecuador, put up the sign in response to customer complaints only to find others thought he was discriminating against
workers by requiring them to speak in English even if it had nothing to do with customers.

Albert Thompson, a computer repairman and customer of the store admitted the workers speaking to one another in Spanish made him “wonder if they’re talking about you.’

Josie Lopez, another customer of the store who speaks Spanish and English, said obviously customers should be addressed in English but when workers are speaking among themselves,
“Nobody should tell them what language to speak.’

Dunkin’ Donuts corporate office agrees and told Mr. Chalco and the store franchisee to remove the sign. No disciplinary action was planned against the manager.

Moderator’s Comment: As a consumer, have you ever felt strange when workers speak to each other in a language you do not understand while you are being
waited on? Should stores be able to mandate the language workers speak while on the clock?

George Anderson – Moderator

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26 Comments on "English-Only Sign Gets Manager in Trouble"


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Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
Some years ago, at the height of the Quebecois movement (focused primarily in Montreal), the government decreed that all business had to be conducted in French. This insane edict applied to airline pilots from the U.S., and everywhere else, as they circled and made landings in Quebec. Often in Montreal on business, I was on one of the flights that had a near-miss (or, as George Carlin would call it, “a near hit”) that was attributed to language misunderstanding. The rules were changed, mercifully, and hopefully some real idiots learned a lesson. I don’t blame this kid — he was trying to do what he thought was right and I am pleased Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t make him a poster child of the political correctness du jour. While I think it is a little lacking in manners to have conversations with fellow workers — whether in Spanish, English or Swahili — while waiting on customers, I got very used to it while living in NYC and environs. For fun, I even tried to pick up on… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

First of all, everyone feels a bit odd when people are in a discussion in a language they don’t understand. Secondly, expecting people to speak the national language seems like a fairly reasonable request. But, mandating that foreign language speakers (regardless of the language) never communicate in what may be a second or third language may be a bit draconian and, in some cases, presumably even dangerous if employees couldn’t clearly express the specific nature of a problem or crisis.

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
15 years 11 months ago
I can very much relate to the uncomfortable feeling one gets when others are speaking in another language in your presence. I will never forget my first day as the new manager of a facility and being introduced to the office staff. They were all speaking in Spanish and smoking cigars at their desks. Being a non-smoker and not speaking their language made for an interesting and challenging start. I politely but firmly requested that they speak to me in English, but did not attempt to restrict their internal discussions in their native language. The entire facility became non-smoking and that was a much bigger deal to them. There is a very large Hispanic population in our area. The majority of workers are speaking to each other in Spanish and to the English speaking customers in broken English and the Hispanic customers in Spanish. If this transformation continues, we will feel like we have moved South of the border in our own community. Call me old-fashioned, by I think if you are going to adopt… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

Quick follow-up to Marilyn’s points. First, I agree in principle with much of what you say but two issues need clarification. First, in the Canadian example there are two official national languages, which is different (for better or worse) than the situation here in the U.S. Also, let’s assume that Spanish was the second national language of America (which it might well be one day). Now, picture the same scenario with the employees speaking Arabic or Russian or Chinese. The point doesn’t change unless we adopt 100 or so national languages.

Connie Kski
Guest
Connie Kski
15 years 11 months ago

I agree that it’s all about courtesy.

Too often the cover of a different language is used to shield non-work related conversation from the customer who is receiving less-than-adequate customer service. I think that is often the basis of complaints, not the language itself.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
15 years 11 months ago

The chief merit of any language is clarity – to be understood, and we know that nothing detracts so much from this as do unfamiliar terms and sounds. It’s natural that people rely on the words that are most familiar to them; likewise, it is most comforting when one hears words they can understand when being served in a commercial establishment.

Mandating the use of English by people not experienced or comfortable with that language is like fishing in concrete. Eventually time, education and usage will modify such situations.

Madeleine Forrer
Guest
Madeleine Forrer
15 years 11 months ago
Unilateral anything is usually a bad idea. One of the underlying issues goes back to English proficiency of those who come to the US, want to work and can’t speak the language. I might have shared a lot of these views, prior to my current position where we are now designing product for specific ethnicities. It’s not unusual for me to be in a meeting and be the only one who doesn’t speak the language. In a workplace environment, where the customer is to be the focal point, language should be no different than product strategy. I think the real issue here is one of respect and being customer focused. One of my current complaints is non-native speakers who are asked to work at a drive through with a horrible speaker. Talk about a language barrier. I find nothing wrong with asking workers in an environment where most customers are English speakers to be respectful of the customers. You ask them to please limit their native language discussion to needing directions or a policy described… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
15 years 11 months ago

This is the height of rudeness. Number one – employees should not have conversations period when one is waiting on a customer. Number two – employees should never engage in any conversation above a whisper when customers are in the store. (I don’t know how many times I have experienced employees in fast food restaurants having loud conversations “across the store” with no regard for the fact that customers were in the store.) Employees exist for one reason and that is to satisfy customers. ANY activity that puts their impulses above the customer is rude and a direct reflection on management and the level of training that is provided.

stéphane Blanchinet
Guest
stéphane Blanchinet
15 years 11 months ago

As a foreign born Canadian, I appreciate living in Montreal specifically because it is one of these cities where I can speak the four languages that I have mastered — French, English, Spanish, Creole — and also practice the languages that I am trying to learn — Portuguese and Italian.

I think that there is absolutely no problem to address a friend in a language that only he and myself understand and it is not necessarily to say bad things about anyone.

I hope my kids will speak as many languages as possible, and from my perspective the stupid rule is to impose one language to a population that is more and more diverse.

The only rule that I think makes sense is that people serving you should be able to talk to you in a language you understand when they directly address you.

Imposing a language on people is very close to language fascism.

Zel Bianco
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

I agree with Art. I’m not saying we shouldn’t all be tolerant and, yes, we should all speak more than one language. For those of us who have spent time in Europe or Latin America, we see that most people speak at least two languages and sometimes three. This does not seem to be the case in the U.S. At the same time, when the person who is supposed to be taking your order in a deli or checking you out at the counter in a CVS or Rite Aid, simply cannot communicate or answer a simple question – then the shopping experience becomes a real problem. In addition, I think it’s really rude when the checkout person is having an entire discussion with their co-worker in Spanish while at the same time taking forever to complete your transaction and there is a huge line of people waiting behind you. Imagine how profitable retailers would be if they fixed some of these issues.

Laurie Cozart
Guest
Laurie Cozart
15 years 11 months ago

I believe that the customer should be made to feel as comfortable as possible. It’s unfortunate that people seem to be uncomfortable with employees speaking a different language when conversing with each other, but it’s a fact. A fact with some merit. I have witnessed instances where a customer was being talked about in a derogatory manner by employees, assuming the customer could not understand their conversation. Shock and embarrassment was on their faces when the customer responded back in their language. If sales and customer service are true values of the company, everyone should be treated with respect and all efforts should be made to conduct business in the most common language of the area.

stéphane Blanchinet
Guest
stéphane Blanchinet
15 years 11 months ago
Reason should be our guide!! We have to understand that the world is changing around us. More and more, the environment is multiethnic and multilingual. Maybe this should help us realize that the world is much larger than North America and that borders are fading and in many ways do not make sense anymore. Is it a generational issue? I am not sure. However, I do think that this is more of an issue for people over 40. I might be wrong since my environment is Montreal, which is a very diverse city. Nonetheless, youngsters do not seem to mind that much while older people (meaning over 50) seem to have more of an issue with language diversity. Essentially, a clerk should address the client in the official language of the country in which he resides, but it would not be reasonable to force someone to speak a certain language when addressing a member of the same community. This is plain unreasonable. What is reasonable is that they should not be derogatory when talking about… Read more »
David Locke
Guest
David Locke
15 years 11 months ago
Think about it from the opposite side. You have a Spanish only customer and you are speaking English at them. The real issue is content of that speech rather than language. So how does a customer know what is being said about them and if that language is offensive? Should we learn just the offensive parts of the language, since that is what we are seeking to control? Then, what of innuendo? How much language is necessary before you can understand what is being implied. Learning is fine, but where are you going to find people who understand how to be offensive in that language? Language learners typically speak slower than natives. They are not taught the language at natural speeds. Hire native speakers, rather than college trained speakers. Of course, you can’t afford college trained speakers in most of your customer facing operations anyway. I’m not going to feel embarrassed by my inability to speak Spanish. I live in South Texas. Hispanics take Spanish in college and drop the class, because Castilian Spanish is… Read more »
Albert Crandall
Guest
Albert Crandall
15 years 11 months ago

Sorry guys – the language is English. Learn to speak it. I was recently in France and none of them cared that I spoke only English. This country speaks English and those who don’t – should.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

This sounds like a case for Super Trainer. First, the manager should be trained to actually talk to his staff, not just stick signs up on the wall. He should also be trained in how to deal with customer complaints without necessarily taking sides and possibly over-reacting to what has been said. Second, the staff should be trained in keeping their private conversations, whether they are about the customers or not, behind the scenes (or the counter) and extending courtesy to customers by speaking their language. If they speak English in front of the customers and offer a good level of service, there shouldn’t be any objection to them speaking more plainly and comfortably to one another when not dealing with customers. Having a private conversation with a fellow staff member when you are meant to be dealing with a customer is downright rude whatever language you do it in.

Anna Murray
Guest
Anna Murray
15 years 11 months ago

“Do I feel uncomfortable when people speak in another language and I don’t understand it?” Yes, I feel uncomfortable. I feel embarrassed at my lack of knowledge. OK, not if it’s Swahili. But if it’s French, Spanish or German (or any other Western language that, for hundreds of years, has been considered part of a good education)– sure. I feel generally embarrassed about xenophobic, badly-world-educated American culture.

I used to teach school, and would ask my 10th-graders as the first exercise of the year to draw a map of the world. Fill in whatever they knew. I would get– no kidding– things like Antarctica at the North Pole and Japan in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

At the National Museum in Greece, all the signs are in Greek, English, French and German. What an idea! To borrow a word from George Bush– how ’bout them “Grecians”!

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

Generally, when I hear workers conversing in a different language, it makes me feel under-educated…especially if that language is Spanish. I fault myself for not understanding. Sure, workers who talk about customers are being rude, but muttering is done much more often in English. The issue is not the language; it’s lack of courtesy.

The other day, I shopped an Indian grocery (an amazing array of exotic produce and imported goods). When I approached the checkout, which was free of customers, two young women were chatting away in their native tongue. But they immediately turned, smiled and greeted me in English. They also offered some pointers on how to prepare the food ingredients my wife and I had selected… and even gave my wife advice on a hair product she had picked up for our girls.

The glimpse of culture, including the sound of their language, was part of a great experience and we left with their infectious smiles on our faces.

David Livingston
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

It’s become so commonplace I never really thought about it. I admire workers who are bilingual and can take orders in English and speak to coworkers in another language. That really surprises me that someone would complain in Yonkers, New York – one of the most diversified areas of the country. Maybe in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but not Yonkers. The manager was just responding to his customer’s complaints, which he must take seriously in order to provide the best customer service. It’s just disappointing that the customers reacted this way. Still the customer is always right so you have to do what is needed to keep them coming back.

Marilyn Raymond
Guest
Marilyn Raymond
15 years 11 months ago

I may be violating the Golden Rule of RetailWire but I’ll take my chances….

As a Canadian raised in an era when bilingualism was forced on us, I have come out the other end thinking that it was a pretty good idea after all. Even as bilingual rules are softened, most uni-lingual English Canadians actually feel rather provincial for not being able to communicate when necessary in French.

Unlike Americans, where I suggest there is an underlying smugness to those who don’t speak English at all times, English Canadians now feel they are the illiterate ones for being unable to understand the other.

I wonder if more English speaking Americans spoke Spanish, or at least embraced the notion of a bilingual America or other second language — if anyone would give a second thought to two employees conversing together in something other than English!?!?

Barbara Barnes
Guest
Barbara Barnes
15 years 11 months ago

Al – thanks for chiming in. Those who chose this country as their place in which to abide or work should do so in English.

m schrader
Guest
m schrader
15 years 11 months ago
I have very strong feelings on the subject. Not too long ago, my husband and I went to a restaurant that had an open-ended self-serve salad bar. My husband, who is a larger man and an American who speaks fluent Spanish, was at the salad bar when he overheard the Spanish-speaking workers who were attending the salad bar refer to him with a derogatory term and say something like he’d probably eat everything on the salad bar. This was very upsetting to my husband, who asked to speak with the manager, who did nothing more that apologize for his worker’s rude behavior. If we had our way, the two employees should have been fired. I find it very rude and annoying when employees carry on a conversation among themselves and do not focus their full attention on me, the customer. I do not want to hear about them having sex with their boyfriend or who they are going to the prom with or any other topic of conversation. Private conversations should be limited to the… Read more »
suzette rodriguez
Guest
suzette rodriguez
15 years 11 months ago

I don’t think the manager was wrong to post that sign, and I am a Latina. While behind the counter, employees are “at work” and before the public. It shouldn’t be about accommodating personal conversations but rather making it a pleasant experience for the customer. Since the employees obviously speak both English and Spanish there is no reason for them to converse in Spanish while working behind the counter unless it is to assist a Spanish speaking customer. Besides, it’s ill mannered to speak in front of people in a language they don’t understand and that’s true whether your speaking Spanish in Yonkers, English in Ecuador, or German in Rome, it’s just rude. Why are so many people and the corporation itself so quick to accommodate rude personal behavior?

Jerry Tutunjian
Guest
Jerry Tutunjian
15 years 11 months ago

It’s impolite to talk to someone in a language that the third party can’t understand.

Rupa Ranganathan
Guest
Rupa Ranganathan
15 years 11 months ago
Juan’s plight in trying please his customers actually ended up in displeasing his employees so much, that his original purpose of customer service was defeated. By forbidding his employees to speak in Spanish amongst themselves, at the wrath of his customer, Juan, was reacting and not addressing the root cause of his customer service problem. This Yonkers franchisee responded to his situation not differently from some major retail chains or other major Fortune 500 firms. He reacted and did not address the core issues on hand. Juan complicated his problem by taking sides and appeared to be against his employees. His original sign, which had a forbidding tone of voice, only spurred the wrath his multicultural team. He was thus torn apart between his quest to please his customer, who took offence to their speaking in Spanish, and his team. Consider what might have happened if he called his team for a “Munchikins Strategy Session” that day and discussed the customer’s problem and asked them to do a role play to find a solution. And… Read more »
Ramesh Raman
Guest
Ramesh Raman
15 years 9 months ago

It’s all about handling people. The manager should have called up a meeting of his staff and explained the discomfort being caused to customers because of this language problem. Had he asked for solutions from his staff, naturally someone would have come up with “speaking in English in the presence of customers.” The simplest solution being the best, he could have adopted this. The ownership of this solution being with the staff, they have an obligation to honor it. Simple.

The real problem is with putting up a sign. You don’t communicate with your staff with signs; you talk to them.

Dora Morrison-Stewart
Guest
Dora Morrison-Stewart
15 years 5 months ago

Has anyone stopped to consider that ‘English Only’ in the United States was adopted in the early 1900s as part of a standardized educational system? At that time, there was a relatively uniform distribution in this country of Spanish, German, French and English speakers. In response to any of you who believe that English should be the only language spoken in the borders of this country I would remind you of my grandmother – she spoke Russian, German and Cherokee because that was spoken at home and where she grew up. The state passed a law the first year she attended public school that English was the standard language of the United States, and not even my gran’s teacher understood it. Remember we are a nation of immigrants – at least that much has not changed. Grow up and learn a little more about why you are speaking English here.

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