Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work in London
Depending on where you work, speaking foreign languages on the job can open up a big can of worms. While it is an individual’s human right to do so, it can create huge issues of mistrust and cliques which can ultimately lead to racism. No where is this more pronounced than in the manufacturing sector which is often fuelled by immigrant labour.
After completing a recent sensitivity training session with a worker who was accused of making insensitive remarks to a group of foreign language speakers in the lunch room, I realized how complex and divisive this topic can be. The situation becomes intensified when the workers are fluent in English but choose to speak another language over breaks and in their lunch room.
When my parents came to Canada in the 1960’s they did not know English and there weren’t any supports for people like there are today. But English language fluency is much higher these days than in the past for several reasons. With stricter health and safety standards workers must be more fluent to understand the workplace hazards. The Canadian government has a fluency standard for immigration and there are more free programs for New Canadians to access to learn English than ever before.
Breaks are a time to relax. When you are not completely fluent in English, speaking it during the day becomes very tiring. It makes sense that you don’t want to continue to make the effort because you need to refuel for the rest of your shift. But, what if you are fluent in English and choose to speak another language during your lunch hour or breaks? Indeed you have the right to do so, but this does not always mean it is the best choice and without consequence?
In Canada we also have the right to ask for religious and cultural accommodations in the workplace. But is it always the right thing to do? You can argue that it is “your right” but sometimes our individual rights clash with what is good for the group. What if your team has an important deadline to meet and you must leave early from work to accommodate a religious obligation and they really need your help? Are you going to leave and hold them completely responsible for finishing the task? This may be your right to do so, but how are your co-workers going to feel about you tomorrow? It all depends. For example, did you do whatever you possibly could in advance to help them with the project? Might you be available in case of an emergency?
A key component missing from the dialogue on exercising individual rights in the workplace is the impact that it can have on your co-workers. Creating exclusive lunch rooms segregated by language and shrugging off workplace responsibilities because of cultural/religious obligations do not make a recipe for harmonious interpersonal relationships.
When we exercise our individual rights in the workplace we must also consider the impact it may have on our fellow co-workers and do what we can to alleviate the burden for them.