Dealing with workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination to create a respectful workplace


People speaking different languages at work can be one of the most contentious issues to address. If you want to avoid insult, indignation (even banner headlines) consider simple and common sense approaches to handle this sometimes delicate issue.


You are now reading the most read educational page on my website, because despite our desire to work harmoniously in our multicultural country, it’s not always easy and I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty as we all try our best…even if we struggle through it. This is one of the most contentious issues at some workplaces and yet people often have difficulty expressing their frustration, often for fear of being thought of as racist.


Right off the bat, let’s deal with one of the strangest things we think when we hear someone speaking a language other than our own (in this case, English, but also French when spoken in Quebec and other parts of Canada): for some bizarre reason, when people are speaking in a language other than English, we think they are talking about us! How we’ve come to think that others have nothing better to do than talk about us, I’ll never know. I hate to break it to all of us (me included) but we’re not that important.  There is a great Seinfeld episode that makes fun of our paranoia, when Elaine thinks the women at the Korean nail salon are talking about her…and in this case they are.  However, most of life is not like a Seinfeld episode and it helps to remember that.


When we get away from our paranoia and talk about actual concerns regarding languages, there is a strong argument to be made that it’s just plain rude to talk in a language that excludes certain people.  When the common language at work is English (for example) most people believe everyone should be speaking English.  Fair enough, but like so many things in life, it’s not always that straight forward.


If your mother tongue was not English, it’s not always easy to converse in English all the time.  I have struggled with my little bits of French (even after 2 summers of French Immersion in Quebec when I was at law school and a month in Paris a couple years ago) and I know how exhausting it is to translate all the time and to try to get my point across while attempting to remember the right words, the right grammar and the right French sayings.  It’s tough.


So when I talk to people who have English as an additional language, I am told of the same struggles I experience with my pitiful French…but for these people, it’s not a summer experience…it’s their livelihood.  That’s why, if there’s an opportunity to go back into the comfort of speaking the language of our birth, we do that. We don’t have to think so much and we don’t have to worry about slipping up, or using the correct tense. We don’t have to concentrate on the fast talkers or those with a different English accent. In other words, there’s a comfort and it’s much easier to slip back into our “first” language.


Speaking your first language is like coming home. It’s comfortable…yet for many of us who don’t speak that language, we just think it’s plain rude and we assume others know it’s rude.


But most people I speak with never think they are being rude. Most of them don’t really notice the reaction of others, or are not aware that others think they are rude. Some people just naturally slip into the language and while the English-only people take great exception to it, the person speaking the other language didn’t really notice they were speaking their first language. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but it’s very common.


Here’s what I suggest:


Don’t make language an issue unless it really is becoming an issue. If people are occasionally speaking in a language other than English, let’s say on a break or just between two people, don’t make a fuss.


If for operational or safety reasons, or just ensuring everyone is on the same page, then let everyone know that, with some exceptions, English should be spoken during business hours. Don’t be rigid. Let people tell you what those exceptions might be. I’m sure, somewhere in there, the issue of “on my own time” will come up. People will ask if they can speak in another language on their coffee or meal breaks. This is where you want to have a respectful (and I mean respectful) conversation about people’s feelings on the subject.


For those who feel it’s rude, you don’t want to be attacking your co-workers. This conversation is about a vital part of who they are – their first language. Let them know that you feel excluded or ostracized. Maybe they don’t mean it, or even think about it, but that’s how you feel (or whatever you truly feel). Then, make sure the persons speaking a different language get their say. You may be surprised what they tell you. But if it’s a respectful conversation, then you can talk about what each person should do in the future to get along. You may agree there are times when the common language of English is not always necessary and you may agree to hand signals or something friendly, to let others know you feel excluded (I don’t know – make something up).


When we’re talking “personal” break times and employees say they want to truly take a break, even from having to always concentrate on English, then I wouldn’t push the “English-only” requirement during all breaks. People are expected to get along at work. They are not expected to be friends with everyone and they don’t have to make everyone feel great. English for operational purposes: fine. English on their own time, after a person has been told it might cause concerns: not so fine.


At all times, the conversations must be respectful. That may sound corny, but truly listening in a respectful way (not just trying to get someone to see my side) will make the difference between harmony and chaos.  Decide where the boundaries are. Let everyone express their feelings. Don’t be rigid. Language is one of the great dividers all over the world where armed battles have been fought (and are still being fought). Yet language is also one of the great uniters when people from various places find they can speak a common language.


It’s a good thing to have people in your workplace who speak more than one language. And with Canada’s immigrants now making up all our net employment growth, and since most immigrants don’t start out with completely fluent in English (or French), we must be more accepting of people with English as an additional language.  Canada’s former finance minister and now the head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, John Manley, gave a speech in Ottawa where he urged his business audience to encourage more education in more languages, not just English and French.  Because Canada is expanding its trade with countries all over the world, he stressed the importance of being able to converse in the language where you want to do business.


Instead of being insulted or feeling left out, how about asking your co-workers to teach you a few words or phrases in their first language?  You might pick up a few things and you might have someone more willing to understand your concerns over common languages.  I’m a testament to having a hard time learning new language, but even I can remember a few key words that show I’m willing to help with creating common communication.


If you want to help a colleague with her English, this can be a great thing, but first the other person must ask for it.  If you have had an open and respectful discussion about language issues, you may get your colleague asking for help.  If not, I wouldn’t go there, or I’d be very, very careful giving suggestions about English.  Most people around the world don’t want to be ridiculed or made to feel stupid or incompetent in front of others.  So any support must be done with sensitivity and perhaps not in front of others…but it will depend on the person and if support or education about English is being done in a sincere way to help the person.  If English is your first language, you might not be aware how difficult this language actually is…we just take it for granted.


As more immigrants come to this country with first languages other than English, we’ll face more challenges as we communicate with one another.  However, if you anticipate the challenges, give people support and stop looking at having more than one language as a bad thing, you will be ahead of those people and workplaces that simply push back.  Whenever anyone apologizes for their English, I remind them that their English is much, much, much better than my Tagalog, or German or Punjabi or….And it’s true.

In-House Training Manual

- Now Available -

If you are a supervisor, manager or employer, you may want to tackle harassment, discrimination, bullying and other forms of weird workplace behaviour by doing your own in-house training.  If you do, Stephen has created the most comprehensive training manual for Canadian workplaces, with all the resources you’ll need, such as all your notes, training slides, answers to typical questions, handouts and even videos of Stephen explaining some aspects of the learning to make it easier on the instructor.  It’s more than 600 pages long with 100% Canadian content to ensure you’re not relying on U.S. materials that don’t apply to Canadian laws.