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Language Discrimination in the Workplace – A Conflict Resolution Case Study

The State of Texas is a highly successful and diverse state in comparison to the rest of the country. Texas is the 10th largest economy in the world and one of the strongest economies in the United States. The state’s economy is resilient and strong due to the diverse workforce which has allowed the state to recover from the 2008 recession in only 39 months while the nation took 76 months. As Texas’ population growth continues to skyrocket, and the state’s aging baby-boomer generation increases, the demand for jobs primarily in the Education, Health, Hospitality, and Leisure has been filled by immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Mexico.1 It is clear that the recovery and growth experienced in Texas could not have happened if not for immigrant workers. But this growth is not without its controversy and workplace problems. Just as America’s history is full of anti-immigrant sentiment, so is Texas’ – and this recent growth is no exception.

            With the large Hispanic workforce in Texas, the issue of language has been a common issue for employees and employers alike. In fact, many employers have implemented English-only rules for the workplace. State and Federal governments has found rules like these to be Language discrimination which is considered to be a, “subset of national origin discrimination” and refers to “the unfair treatment of an individual based solely upon the characteristics of their speech; such as, accent, size of vocabulary, and syntax.”2 This discrimination is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights act of 1964 which protects against language discrimination, accents, mannerisms and requiring english tests for employment.3 Of course, this does not apply to communication directly affecting the job. In short, employee’s communications “in languages other than English should not be limited to only those official functions for which they were hired. Employees’ right to speak in languages other than English may only be curtailed in certain narrowly-defined situations”. Those situations focus on communication with clients, customers, and other employees – especially when safety is concerned.4 It is important to mention the Equal Employment Opportunity Regulation 29 which states “rule[s] requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment. Such a rule is presumed to violate Title VII. Therefore, a speak-English-only rule that applies to casual conversations between employees on break or not performing a job duty would be unlawful” (Added italics for emphasis).5

English-only rules is where managers and administrators find conflict between spanish-speaking employees, and those uncomfortable with spanish in the workplace. It is an unfortunate fact that “white workers in jobs with a greater presence of minority workers feel more negative emotions while at work than their white counterparts in less racially diverse jobs” and in a state that is balancing an aging white population with an influx of spanish speaking workers, managers are caught in the middle, trying to do the right thing.6 In the following case-study, the subjects work for a high-traffic law firm in a small to mid-sized city in Texas. Because the study is nonfiction, the name of the law firm is redacted and the names of those involved are changed.

Maria  has been hired to be a bilingual receptionist to communicate with the high level of spanish speaking clients. The front of the office is manned by 4 other receptionists – one of which is also hispanic, but is not as fluent as Maria. Maria has an extensive background working in law offices and is fluent in both spanish and english. The first week was very productive and Maria has assisted a handful of spanish-speaking clients. Maria is starting to get herself settled in the new office and getting along well with her co-workers. Up until now “speaking in spanish never created a problem whatsoever”.

During a lunch break, Maria is chatting with another co-worker “in spanish and [they] were carrying on a laughing” minding their own business, enjoying their lunch. At this point, another co-worker, Susan, came into the room and told them to stop speaking spanish. Maria explained that they were on their lunch break and the conversation was not her concern and they were not talking about her. It is important to mention that Maria was not aware that the conversation she was having was in spanish. The two were just getting to know each other and the conversation drifted into a spanish conversation. Susan, frustrated, stormed out of the room crying, saying that Maria and her friend were talking about her and that she “didn’t like [their] language”. Susan complained to the manager that they were speaking spanish and there were no customers in the office and that they were not supposed to talk in spanish.

The manager, Emily, talked with Maria and told her that they are not allowed to speak spanish in the office unless they were directing it to customers for translation purposes. After Maria protested, Emily explained that Susan has had problems with other employees speaking spanish about her so she became paranoid and uneasy around people speaking spanish. Emily told Maria that the english-only rule will be temporary until they can move Susan to another position where she would not have any contact with Maria. Maria did not see this as an effective solution because she would have to communicate with Susan as part of her everyday work. Maria explained that she could not work in a place that was prejudice and that the side of certain employees. Although the manager asked Maria not to leave, Maria felt that this was a hostile work place and “could not work with being limited on what [she] can do in the office”.7

            A few points should be noted regarding the study. First, it is made clear by the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee (EEOC) that employment laws extend to immigrants and that, “rules requiring employees to speak only english in the workplace violates the law”. The only exceptions involve communications with co-workers and customers who only speak english, in emergencies or safety oriented situations, and certain projects where an english-only rule would promote efficiency.8 Because the case-study involves personal conversations, on personal time, the manager cannot lawfully restrict language according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. In fact, EEOC has already covered this issue in a number of cases. A similar issue is seen in Cosme v. Salvation Army whereIris Cosme, a retail worker in a Salvation Army thrift store, had a limited grasp of english, but was able to interact with customers and do her job. After a few incidents of speaking to a co-worker in spanish, management terminated her employment.9 EEOC has ruled against the use of english only rules in these circumstances many times making it clear where the federal government stands with these issues.10

One cannot fully understand the case without taking into consideration the personal nature of the issue as well. According to The Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, language choices is of paramount importance to identity construction. The Journal ultimately stresses, “that personal identity is defined by how others identify us, not how we identify ourselves” and that “if the speaker is not allowed any influence on their own output, then the hearer is able to construct an identity for the speaker which may be entirely disparate from the speaker’s desired identity” giving a huge amount of power to those in charge.11   In fact, the journal asserts that when the majority sees a rise in minority peoples in the workplace, they often “react to this loss of power” and try to “establish laws and policies most favorable to themselves. English-only workplace policies are generally an attempt to dictate the identity of workers in order to exercise hegemony”.12 Language, notably in this case, is a personal way of identifying culture as well.13 For this case study, it is important to note that language, especially on personal time, is an important aspect of personal identity as well as culture.

With that in mind, the question arises: what should a manager do in this situation? Of course, the reader is more likely to side with Maria, but it is important to point out that Susan is extremely sensitive to this issue. Even though her reasoning is wrong and is prejudice against spanish speakers, Susan is extremely upset about this. And since Susan is a veteran in the office, her expertise cannot be easily parted with.

Administrators often operate in situations that are full of dubious and awkward situations. To effectively manage employees, managers must utilize “a combination of strategic planning and contingency management to adapt to the unsure conditions”.14 They must therefore be less reactive and more anticipatory to predict and expect disturbances. Because Susan has had problems with spanish speaking employees in the past, it would have been beneficial to all involved to lay down so ground rules for the new spanish speaking hire. In addition, there are  a few concepts in Public Administration that must be considered when trying to figure out the best solution as the manager. These concepts cover the conflict resolution and decision making principles of Mary Follett, Herbert Simon, and Charles Lindblom.

The managing strategies that should be employed in such a wicked problem are thoroughly covered by Organization Development theorists which includes the mother of conflict resolution: Mary Parker Follett. Organization Development theorists “view conflict as natural and search for ways to manage it to the advantage of the organization”.15 Mary Follett stresses that conflicts in the workplace are inevitable. But conflict itself is not good or bad and, since it cannot be avoided, “should be used, much as a violin uses friction to make music”.16 Follett identifies three means for conflict resolution: domination, compromise, and integration. Domination, identified by the coercion, imitation, and submission, is “inherently flawed because it ends in the victory of one side”. Compromise on the other hand is a focus on the principle of yielding something in exchange for something else. Follett describes this as “temporary and futile”. Finally, there is integration which Follet argues is the best of the three for resolution and asserts “that when conflicting interests meet, they need not oppose, but may simply confront” and that integration “is thus the emergence of a creative synthesis produced by the interaction of differing interests”.17

Follett employs the “circular response” with which integration is achieved. Circular Response begins with evocation which is the creative adjustment of differing interests and involves “plus-values”, or values that represents creative responses to social conflict.18 Applying Follett’s concepts to the case-study, it seems all too obvious that management would have benefitted from employing integration to conflict. Instead, the office created a hostile environment where, though they tried to compromise, ended up dominating the situation and losing Maria as an employee. The result is a “power-over” instead of a “power-with” situation.19

Both actors are limited in actions by what Herbert Simon calls “bound rationality” which are inexorable limits of human nature.22 Because the actors are both bound by their moral code, the manager must act within the “problem space” with all facts and alternatives known to make the best decision. Simon distinguishes two decision makers: the economic man and the satisficing man. The former is viewed as “a value maximizer who can deal effectively with uncertainty”. The most important aspect to the Economic Man is that he knows all the facts and all alternatives and chooses the best one.23 The Satisfying Man is one who has limited information and cannot examine all possible alternatives and thus cannot make the best rational decision. The manager in this situation is no doubt a Satisfying Man.24

The last useful decision making method within social conflict comes from Charles Lindblom’s Synoptic/ Rational-Choice Method. The Synoptic model is “based on nonpartisan and scientific analysis and not contaminated by ethical issues” so would seem to be an option for sensitive issues. Although the decision maker in this model has “full information”, it is often described as having “little practical guidance for dealing with…collective decision environments” and is not considered useful in problems involving multiple actors in the conflict.26 The incrementalism model, on the other hand is a process that “compares the probable gains and losses of closely related alternatives by making relatively small adjustments in existing reality”.27 The process of incremental adjustments to resolve the conflict between employees like Maria and Susan seems to be the best and most rational way of finding a way to appease them both.

Management plays a fundamental role in conflict resolution as the mediary between the conflicting parties. When determining what one would do as the manager in this situation, it is important to note “employees act on the basis of habit, their own self-interest,…and what they believe to be rational” and that “individuals have a moral code that delimits their behavior”. Managers that “demand activities in conflict with the subordinate’s moral code, the individual is not likely to comply”.21 Susan is earnestly uncomfortable with spanish speakers and Maria does not want to compromise her individuality or freedom. Any solution against their moral code will result in one of them leaving the firm.

In the case study, Maria demands equal treatment and wants to protect her freedom and individuality in the workplace. Susan, likewise, demands that no one speak another language in front of her because it makes her uncomfortable. Whether or not the actors in this case are acting rationally, the manager is put in a position to settle this conflict and leaves the case open to a number of questions.

  1. Is this language discrimination? Why or why not?
  2. With all the facts and alternatives known, you can act as an Economic Man where the manager was a Satisfying Man – what would you have done as the manager in this situation?
  3. What leadership style does the manager use? (see page 133 of CBW).
  4. How do you think Mary Follett’s conflict resolution tactics could be applied to this situation?
  5. Between Mary Follett, Herbert Simon, and Charles Lindblom, who’s decision making process is most useful in this case study from the perspective of the manager? (what are the pros and cons of each?)


  1. The State of Texas. “Texas Workforce Report 2016 – 2017” Texas Workforce Commission, 2017. Pg 2.
  2. Midwest New Media. “Language Discrimination – Workplace Fairness.” All About Unions. Accessed June 23, 2018.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Civil Rights Center (CRC).” United States Department of Labor. Accessed June 23, 2018.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Bradley, Bill. “White Workers Still Uncomfortable Around Minorities, Study Finds.” Next City. December 5, 2018. Accessed June 23, 2018.
  7. Personal Communication, email interview, June 21, 2018.
  8. “Immigrants’ Employment Rights Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws.” Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination: Questions And Answers. Accessed June 25, 2018.
  9. Gibson, Kari. English Only Court Cases Involving the U.S. Workplace: The Myths of Language Use and the Homogenization of Bilingual Workers’ Identities. Report. University of Hawai’i. Pg 9.
  10. Ibid. pg 51 – 52.
  11. Bergman, Mindy; Watrous-Rodriguez, Kristen; Chalkley, Katherine. Identity and Language: Contributions to and Consequences of Speaking Spanish in the Workplace. The Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, Vol 30, Issue 1, pp. 40 – 68. February 1, 2018. Accessed  June 23, 2018. Pg 4.
  12. Ibid. pg 6.
  13. Gibson, Kari. pg 21.
  14.  Cayer, N. Joseph, David L. Baker, and Louis F. Weschler. Public Administration: Social Change and Adaptive Management. San Diego, CA: Birkdale Publishers, 2016. Pg 50.
  15. Ibid. pg 126 – 127.
  16. Fry, Brian R., and Jos C. N. Raadschelders. Mastering Public Administration: From Max Weber to Dwight Waldo. Los Angeles: Sage, 2014. Pg 156.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid. pg 157.
  19. Ibid. pg 159.
  20. Ibid. pg 158
  21. Cayer, N. Joseph, David L. Baker, and Louis F. Weschler. Pg 132 – 133.
  22. Fry, Brian R., and Jos C. N. Raadschelders. Pg 293.
  23. Ibid. pg 291.
  24. Ibid. pg 291 – 293.
  25. Ibid. pg 354.
  26. Ibid. pg 355.

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