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Are we Speaking the Same Language?

Posted by Elaine Varelas  September 12, 2012 10:00 AM

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Q. I supervise a team of bilingual employees. They were hired in part due to their language skills, as our company has found our customers require services in English and Spanish. I am not bilingual in Spanish. My employees often speak Spanish with each other for both social conversations and business matters. This prevents me from being able to understand their conversations. I would like to think this is not done specifically to exclude me, but I do not believe that to be the case. Sometimes when I leave the 'floor' after a talk with the employees about work issues, the conversation is all Spanish. How should I handle this situation? Should I acknowledge this at all? What is the standard etiquette in work places for bilingual people?

A. As the work place continue to become more global, more languages will be used in corner offices, conference rooms, golf courses, men's and women's rooms - all the places business is conducted. And you will have skills managing multi-lingual employees which can serve you well in your career, or not, depending on how you handle this situation.

Some people worry that people speaking another language around them may be talking about them - in a derogatory fashion. And I am sure sometimes they are, which they would anyway (in any language) once people are out of earshot. Most often they are not, and are focused on work, or returning to a conversation they had been involved with prior to someone's arrival. You may share this fear, coupled with a concern your work group is excluding you. Are they giving you other indications of excluding you? Your relationship can be strengthened so you feel more confident about their respect for you and the expertise you bring to the work team.

You have a great opportunity to acknowledge the value your staff brings to the success of the company because of their language skills. You can also let them know you envy the fact that they speak a second language spoken by so many, and their ability to transition from one language to another based on customer need. This recognition of another language as a significant asset can be the first step in strengthening your relationship with your team. Do not let this issue become a "you" vs. "me" issue. As a leader you can determine the etiquette of employee behavior with their input, by focusing on the shared goals of customer service, comfort and effective employee teamwork.

If an English speaking customer is being supported, or there are non-Spanish speaking staff in the area, English should be spoken by as many people as possible. If Spanish is being spoken, the same can happen. If you are in the area, English should be spoken so that you are welcomed into the conversation, and you can offer expertise and support to work related issues. Your staff can discuss the complexities of making this happen, and any obstacles they may face to maximizing customer support and colleague comfort.

You can ask for an all English speaking policy, which does nothing to support your business needs, and shows a lack of respect for some of the skills which brought your staff to your firm. It has been done, and will continue to be done in many work places though there are much better choices.

You can embrace the diversity of language within your work group, and make the efforts to learn work-related phrases and more. Developing your skills in this area might make you less nervous about what might be said about you, and more invested in the greater business benefit having a talented work force offers.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.

Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.

Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.

Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.

Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.

Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.

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