Diversity, Language & Miscommunication
Diversity is a wonderful thing. The benefits abound: a McKinsey study found that diverse boards of directors generate better returns and more money; a Tuft’s study concluded that diverse groups uncover more angles when serving on mock juries (which underscores the value all the more so); a combined study by Columbia, MIT, University of Texas-Dallas and Northwestern found that stock picks by diverse teams experienced 58% better returns than those by homogeneous groups; new viewpoints lead to better results, found a study by Northwestern and BYU; and, diverse teams develop better products, revealed a study by Scientific American. WOW.
In addition to all of the studies confirming the value of diversity in the workplace, those of us who have benefited from the learning that takes place within diverse groups, just like it! Fortunately, I was born and raised in what I call “the United States of California,” specifically the LA area, so my whole life has been filled with diversity – schoolmates, friends, boyfriends, colleagues, and clients. That said, there are also studies that support the notion that Americans tend to “self-segregate,” whether in social settings or the Internet, which is another matter entirely and found in my upcoming book: Courageous Communication: A Return to Civility, “Can’t we all just get along,” Rodney King.
This post focuses on the miscommunications often due to language that can take place in richly diverse workplaces, examples of some, and then how to combat them.
The Legal Standard
At the outset, it’s helpful to remember that in the vast majority of American jurisprudence, one looks at two things when assessing culpability: first, the act committed; and, second, the intent of the person who committed the act. Not so in all areas either enumerated in Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or developed over time through what is known as “case-made law,” or the judicial outcome/ pronouncements of lawsuits.
- English is the common language and should be used in the workplace
- It’s okay to use a language other than English when addressing/assisting a monolingual customer, client, patient, or another consumer of the organization’s services or products
- When communicating, it is essential to think about how others might respond or perceive a comment, rather than what is intended
- When unsure, ask, or try a neutral comment, or, consider not communicating in the moment; one can always think first and communicate later
Workplace Communications: Languages Used & What is Appropriate?
There was a period in my consulting life during which I traveled across the country a week a month to assist a healthcare organization. All of the constituent groups were diverse: the employees, the leadership, the client-patients, and the neighborhood. Many of the client-patients were monolingual Spanish, and to communicate with them one needed to speak Spanish.
This phenomenon also occurs with some frequency in the LA area, including with some of my clients.
- A hospital where a majority of the nursing staff is Filipino, and the language is Tagalog.
- The very diverse child care nonprofit, where half of those in the Finance department were Filipino and spoke Tagalog, and the balance represented various other races, ethnicities, and languages.
- The nonprofit agency serves the Chinese community; half of the staff spoke Chinese and the balance spoke Spanish.
- A racially diverse federally funded healthcare organization where one of the groups spoke Spanish to one another, and others who did not, needed to interface with them.
There are doubtless numerous other examples; however, these are all clients I’ve worked with.
So, What Language is Appropriate in the Workplace?
And, the answer is English, the common language shared by all. If an employee is called upon to translate into another language to assist a client and/or patient, that is perfectly acceptable. However, when working with colleagues, it is not. Although we may all be adults, when employees speak in a language other than English, we often revert to our younger selves and feel left out, and often conclude that the topic that is being discussed is us! Sadly, sometimes it is!
More problematic are words or phrases that have one meaning in the native language, and another in English.
The east-coast healthcare client employed many Certified Nurse Assistants (CNAs), some of whom were immigrants from “the islands.” Referring to elderly patients as Mami (female) and Papi (male) was done as terms of endearment. Thus, the CNAs who used these expressions did so out of the best of intentions. However, their intent was irrelevant to how the phrases were received and perceived. Complaints came in, largely from non-Hispanic patients. While training the group, and to make a graphic point, I mentioned that I already had three children, thus, I was not anyone else’s Mami, and would not appreciate being called such. There was shocked silence when I made that statement, with apologies all around. Clearly, the intent was good-hearted; however, the perception was not.
Have a Blessed Day
There were employees – at this organization – and many others, who left on their voicemail the concluding phrase “. . .and have a blessed day.” Fellow employees and members of the public who did not appreciate the comment complained. Again, well-meaning and good-intentioned employees were advised to remove the phrase: not all of those who heard the comment shared the same religious sentiment.
A local nonprofit with an exceptionally diverse workforce received a complaint of a hostile work environment from one of its African American employees who some Latino employees referred to as “Morena.” Essentially, this means “black girl” in Spanish. Retained to conduct diversity and inclusion training after an internal investigation had been conducted, the ice breaker I used was a list of statements that surfaced during the investigation, all of which could be perceived as negative, depending upon who heard them. Out of the gates, as it were, a senior executive raised his hand and stated “I have two sons, one of whom is light-skinned, and the other of whom is dark-skinned. We call the first one blanco (white), and the second one moreno (black) – both of which are terms of endearment.” Once again, the comments made were well-meaning and good-intentioned; however, the receiver was offended.
At about the same time as the morena investigation, and in the course of some harassment prevention training, one of the participants mentioned a hostile work environment lawsuit for which he testified as an expert witness. It turned out that a largely Latino workforce referred to an African American colleague as berenjena, which is eggplant in Spanish. Over time, the employee started to refer to himself as berenjena, thinking it was a term of endearment. Alas, when he discovered the term was negative in Spanish, the employee sued the employer.
In all instances, had the employees who made the statements followed the old adage of “walking a mile in another’s shoes, moccasins, high heels, jackboots” or whatever footwear applies, and/or taken the conservative approach and either said nothing or used a neutral word, and/or asked the employee himself/herself, these unfortunate and unhappy situations might have been avoided. Briefly, this means to think not about how one might interpret or understand something, but how might someone else. This is particularly true in diverse environments. Also, is it really appropriate to call or refer to a colleague as anything other than her or his name?
Concluding Points & Tips
- Diversity in the workplace means greater organizational growth, productivity, profits, and innovation.
- Diversity is here to stay and, although not always easy or comfortable, should be embraced.
- English is the common language in the workplace.
- It’s okay for employees to be called upon to address/assist a non-English speaking client, customer, patient, etc. in his or her language.
- Terms or phrases in a foreign language should be avoided – regardless of the intent of the communicator – because one never knows how the receiver might perceive them.
- When unsure, think about how someone else might perceive something, ask the person, pick a more neutral term or phrase, or communicate nothing; one can always communicate later.
- In short, think before communicating.