Language in the workplace: Confronting tensions on the job

Jobs and WorkplaceSpainEnglandCompanies and CorporationsUnions

Visit the backroom of Field of Flowers in Davie, and you'll hear a medley of accents as workers aesthetically arrange colorful bouquets.

There is Mee Sum Ye, who emigrated from Hong Kong a year ago, working alongside Maria Elena Dios, who is Venezuelan. Isabel Casamas hails from Argentina, and Carmen Woods from Germany. Supervisor Anna Nemeth was born in El Salvador and is married to a Hungarian. Head designer Dirk Herman van den Boogard began in flowers as a 14-year-old apprentice in his native Holland.

It's not always harmonious, concedes owner Donn Flipse, a third-generation Floridian, but "this is South Florida today."

As a magnet for immigrants in the United States and the international gateway for business with Latin America and the Caribbean, South Florida faces perhaps the biggest challenge of any area in the United States to iron out complex issues related to language at work and beyond.

"We're a great melting pot, more so than other parts of the country, but we haven't quite melted together. There's potential for conflict and misunderstanding," said Anne-Marie Estevez, an employment attorney and diversity trainer at the Miami offices of the international law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Language plays a key role because South Florida depends on international trade and tourism for its livelihood. More than 400 companies, from Citibank to Porsche and Samsung, have their Latin American and Caribbean regional headquarters here. Miami International Airport is the busiest U.S. airport for international passengers and international cargo. Those are only a few indicators of the area's strategic weight.

Companies need employees who can speak the languages of their clients.

Just how proficient they need to be, however, depends in part on where they live.

In Miami-Dade, where more than half the population is Hispanic, Spanish is basically a given, both to communicate with customers in the county or abroad.

"If you don't speak Spanish, you are at a competitive disadvantage. Spanish only brings you up to a level playing field," said Dennis Nason, president of Nason & Nason executive recruiters in Miami.

Yet Portuguese also is a plus in Miami-Dade for doing business with Brazil, the largest country in Latin America and South Florida's top trade partner, he said.

Move farther north in South Florida, however, and Spanish becomes a plus -- not a requirement. That's true in most of Broward County, where roughly 17 percent of the people are Hispanic, and where a growing list of companies are developing Latin headquarters.

"And as you approach Palm Beach County, German is a good language to speak," Nason said, because of German tourism as well as strong German investment by such companies as electronics giant Siemens and by individuals in real estate.

Companies now want Spanish for perhaps one in five jobs in Broward and one in 15 in Palm Beach, estimated Leslie Tell, regional director for temporary staffing giant Spherion Corp. in Fort Lauderdale.

Even then, language needs depend on the specific job. A sales clerk in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Broward might be required to speak Spanish, while a receptionist at a medical clinic catering to Creole-speaking Haitians in Delray Beach might find German of little help.

Growing Resentment

But the increased opportunities presented for the multilingual also prompts resentment, especially among low-wage workers who have been squeezed this decade by a weak economy and rising unemployment.

Some residents worry that Spanish will soon be needed throughout South Florida, much as it already is in Miami-Dade County.

"I lost my job because I don't speak Spanish," said Fort Lauderdale-born Patricia Blakely-Este, 39. The African-American woman said she had worked three years as a nighttime clerk at a gasoline service station in Tamarac when a new Hispanic manager was brought in last spring.

"She said she was bringing in her people because the store needed to get more Hispanic. The Cubans came and black workers were pushed out," said Blakely-Este, who, after being fired for insubordination in September, took her charges of job discrimination to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Sharon Nolan, 51, who lives in Boynton Beach since moving from the Boston area in 2001, said she is frustrated at how difficult it is to find office work after being laid off from her job as a hotel reservations clerk.

"I'm noticing it more and more that the ads say `must be bilingual.' I fill out applications and they say, `What languages do you speak?'" Nolan said. "My concern is that you have to be bilingual for a $10 an hour receptionist or customer service job."

The Communications Workers of America alleges that BellSouth pushed aside workers who spoke only English and created tension among co-workers when it closed down a collections department in Miami, displacing 53 employees.

"The decision of keeping the Spanish-speaking representatives while eliminating long-term English-speaking representatives exacerbated division between the groups," said Tony Dorado, former president of the union's Local 3122. "It aggravated a sensitive subject in the workplace."

Employees in Miami without Spanish skills either left the company or ended up in lower-paid positions.

Barbara Elkin, an English speaker who had worked at BellSouth for 30 years, took early retirement -- begrudgingly.

"I don't think what they did was right. I don't think it's fair," she said. "A large corporation like BellSouth shouldn't get rid of employees just because they don't speak Spanish."

But company officials said it was a business necessity.

"The reality is we need more bilingual workers in Miami," said BellSouth spokeswoman Marta Casas-Celaya. "It was the union that made it a language controversy during labor negotiations. Miami was one of six centers closed. Employees had the options of following their jobs to Jacksonville, apply elsewhere in the company or take a generous separation package."

Hispanics with little or no English also suffer when jobs demand strong English skills.

Dominican Republic-born Rosa Perez, a single mother of five who lacks a high school diploma, lost her $12-an-hour job as a baggage screener with a private company at Miami International Airport after the federal government boosted English requirements for screeners under the new Transportation Security Administration.

"Of course, I could have more opportunities if I knew English well," Perez said. "But it's been hard for me to learn English. When you have lots of kids, you work all day, come home, take care of the children and don't have time for classes."

And therein lies one of South Florida's many language dilemmas: How to expand the language skills of the U.S.-born while boosting the English skills of immigrant residents?

THE RIGHT WORDS Ideally, employers want staffers who fully master a language, its technical terms and its cultural nuances -- not just a few words.

Multinational corporations with Latin American headquarters in South Florida often give top jobs to managers from South America because they can converse appropriately with overseas clients. U.S. Hispanics may speak Spanish at home but often lack the grammar, vocabulary and other skills needed for sophisticated business.

"Too often, they speak Spanish like grade-schoolers, not professionals," bemoaned Spain-born Rosa Sugrañes, president of Miami-based Iberia Tile and a longtime advocate of quality language education.

To help bridge the skills gap, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce has been partnering with Miami-Dade public schools since 1995 to upgrade language education in public schools and colleges.

Miami-Dade Community College this month is launching the nation's first two-year degree program to train community college students as interpreters and translators. The goal is to help set language proficiency standards for translators, who deal with written words, and interpreters, who deal with speech.

The Palm Beach County Circuit Court was the first court system in Florida to require interpreters to obtain a stringent national certification before being hired, said Susan Ferranti, court administrator. Interpreters can earn as much as $40 an hour.

Jean Ordoñez has made a business of teaching appropriate language skills to professionals. She runs a Boca Raton-based company, Virtual Languages Inc., which specializes in teaching aviation English for pilots and air traffic controllers, mainly through courses on the Internet. She's also working with Hispanic police in Miami to help them with customer service in English.

"Miami is a perfect market for us because there are so many people born overseas who are conversational in English but not necessarily versed in the English they need for the workplace," Ordoñez said.

For those with solid language abilities, job choices tend to be far greater, although pay scales might not.

Recruiter Nason estimates a trilingual administrative assistant in Miami, speaking English, Spanish and Portuguese, might earn 10 percent more than a bilingual one. But generally, language skills open doors for moving up the job ladder, not staying at the same post.

Employers have learned that for companies to achieve workplace harmony and profits in a global business world, they need cultural understanding and openness.

At call-center giant Precision Response Corp. in Plantation, managers now know that immigrants often understand the nuances of doing business in their countries of origin better than others who have been taught that language in a classroom.

Employees handling calls for British Airways in Latin America know to stay on the phone longer than those speaking English to clients in the United States.

"Latins love to talk, versus Americans who are very much to the point, very business aggressive," said team supervisor Giovanni Fernandez.

"When you call a client in Latin America, you ask, "How are you doing? How are the kids? When are you coming on vacation?" and you end up inviting the client to dinner when they're in town. ... If you're not culturally inclined, you may find that all absurd and may turn off the client."

THE COSTS OF ENGLISH-ONLY

That still leaves companies with the challenge of addressing the ways staffers talk among themselves.

Many encourage bilingual employees to use speak English as a common courtesy when in a group with monolingual co-workers.

"Yes, of course, you have a legal right to speak in Spanish or Creole or Vietnamese," said employment lawyer Estevez. "But others may feel shut out if they don't speak that same language. And worse, they could be offended if they think you are talking about them."

But employers are warned not to impose stringent limits or "English-only rules." The price can be high.

Last year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 228 complaints challenging English-only policies, up from 77 filed in 1996, when the EEOC began tracking the charges. Companies that lose the discrimination cases pay heavily.

For example, the commission in July ordered hair-salon chain Regis Corp. to pay $240,000 to six Hispanic hairstylists in the Chicago area for harassing workers who had spoken Spanish on breaks and to their Spanish-speaking clients.

Companies can set language rules for certain tasks that require it, but should refrain from blanket restrictions, Estevez said.

"In a hospital, for example, you could have an English-only rule in the surgery room, because you wouldn't want the surgeon saying something to one of the nurses that not everyone understands," she said. "But once they walk out of the emergency situation, you can't prohibit them from speaking among themselves in their native language."

Back at Field of Flowers, Flipse and his diverse work force exemplify the challenges and practical solutions.

Two years ago, he devised a "language policy" after American-born workers expressed resentment over Hispanic co-workers speaking Spanish to each other. Now, Hispanics are to consider whether someone around them doesn't understand Spanish before launching into conversation.

He chooses staff with language skills appropriate for their specific tasks. Supervisors must be bilingual. Sales staff in Davie and Coral Springs must speak good English but not necessarily Spanish.

However, in planning a new store in Kendall in Miami-Dade County, Flipse will require sales people to be bilingual.

"Someone who speaks Portuguese would be a good thing, too," he said.

But for those arranging flowers, he seeks artistic talent, which knows no linguistic boundaries.

"Flowers don't care what language you speak," he said.

Joan Fleischer Tamen can be reached at jtamen@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5030.

Doreen Hemlock can be reached at dhemlock@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5009.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Jobs and WorkplaceSpainEnglandCompanies and CorporationsUnions
  • Two-part harmony
    Two-part harmony

    Two-part harmony Arrangers Mirna Mendoza of El Salvador, left, and Yoonee Choi of Korea work at Field of Flowers in Davie. Owner Donn Flipse says coping with linguistic diversity on the job can be a challenge, but adds: “Flowers don’t care what language you speak.”

  • El experimento: Newsroom tries a new culture

    About seven months ago, when the South Florida Sun-Sentinel launched el Sentinel, its Spanish-language weekly, the newspaper was embarking on an unknown.

  • SPECIAL REPORT

    South Florida and the languages we speak Series and opinion poll Photo gallery: Guess which language they speak Message board

Comments
Loading