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Verizon tells employees English only, please

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Published:   |   Updated: August 23, 2013 at 06:14 PM

Verizon executives in Tampa Bay are informally telling employees that they should be speaking English only when on the job.

Not because Verizon has an English-only policy at work — it doesn’t — but because speaking Spanish at work when not absolutely necessary can make nearby English-only speakers feel excluded.

This topic came to a head recently in Tampa when three employees of a Verizon dispatch center were speaking Spanish together, and another employee made a complaint because she felt excluded. The tri-lingual newspaper La Gaceta first reported on the incident this week, telling the story of Margaret Hess, a Verizon employee of 33 years who was asked to speak only English with her co-workers.

Verizon spokesman Bob Elek confirmed the incident, and described the company language policy this way.

“Generally, we tell employees they can speak Spanish (or any other language) on break, lunch or any time away from the work area,” he wrote in an official statement. However, when employees are on the dispatch center floor or other work setting, they should speak English, he said. This promotes “positive employee relations” because it’s courteous to co-workers, and employees should be “mindful” of making others feel uncomfortable, Elek said, “not because they’re speaking Spanish’, but because for some it can create a feeling of separation versus inclusion.”

Elek said that Verizon absolutely encourages employees to speak Spanish as part of their jobs – when it’s necessary to communicate with customers or for other business reasons.

This issue “pops up all the time because there’s friction between cultures,” said Tony Morejon, a cultural affairs liaison for Hillsborough County. “I encourage people to learn English ... but some employees are going to resent this kind of rule. Some will say they won’t speak Spanish for business purposes unless they’re required to, because they feel used. Like ‘Oh when you want me to speak Spanish you say do that, but not other times.’”

Guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allow a company to have a narrowly tailored policy requiring English in the workplace, so long as the policy is not adopted with an intent to discriminate, said Reed Russell, a partner with the law firm of Phelps Dunbar and a former legal counsel to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Companies can require English in many places and times for reasons like workplace safety, efficiency and “harmony,” or official communications.

“Where employers get into difficulty with the EEOC is if the rule is overbroad,” he said, for instance an English-only rule on all company grounds at all times. “This is one of those issues that gets a lot of discussion, but there are not that many EEOC charges or lawsuits filed. It gets a lot of people agitated on both sides of the issue. Some say such a policy is racist or mean-spirited. Others say you should only speak English in America.”

rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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