My bilingual co-workers speak Spanish in front of me and I am not bilingual. How do I address this issue?

By | 2022-02-11T11:06:54-05:00 August 7th, 2009|7 Comments


Dear Donna,

I am having multiple HR issues at work and am unsure how to best handle them without “shooting myself in the foot” and labeling myself as a complainer at the same time. I work in an administrative setting for an insurance company and I am in the minority. More than 89% of the staff are Mexican-American and bilingual. Oftentimes, in meetings and other settings at work a conversation or discussion involves switching between English and Spanish. I am not bilingual and it is uncomfortable to know that people you are involved in a discussion with are having a side discussion in front of you in a different language, simply because they can and they know that you can’t understand them.

I am fairly new (less than two years), and most employees at this company have been there 20 years or more. I have already spoken with the HR point of contact, and she agreed with me that it is not okay, but the behavior continues. I think it is unprofessional, but I am forced to accept it because it is the culture of the organization. How do you advise I address this matter in a diplomatic way? Or should I just let it go?


Dear Donna replies:

Dear NG,

I consulted a human resource expert on this. Here’s what he had to say: “In general, it is considered inappropriate and unprofessional to speak a foreign language in the presence of coworkers who do not understand. Many organizations have policies requiring that only English is spoken during meetings or when conducting business. The nurse did a good thing by reporting the situation to HR, and it is a positive sign that the HR representative was receptive to the complaint. I suggest that the nurse follow-up verbally with HR, and also bring her supervisor into the loop. If the situation does not improve, it may become necessary for this employee to file a formal complaint in accordance with the policies laid out by her employer.”

Good luck,

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  1. Avatar
    Ruby Duran April 2, 2021 at 3:21 pm - Reply

    My 18 yr old daughter is having the same problem where she works. She says they have pointed at her while speaking only Spanish with each other. They know she only speaks and understands English. It’s very upsetting to her and infuriating to me as her mother.

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    Roshedria Hayes May 27, 2021 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    I’m currently 5 weeks fresh on my job. I’m African American and having the same issue. My friend/coworker is Caucasian and about 2 weeks fresh and understands Spanish, and the Hispanics are constantly looking, laughing and talking about us. We both reported them, but I don’t think nothing will be done being that they are such (GOOD WORKERS). I’m a Darn good worker as well. They even ask other Hispanics that talk to us why are they talking to us. Other coworkers say ignore them, but that’s the problem. Ignoring them gives them the right. I’ve also heard of people quitting because they could no longer deal with them talking about them. I like my job, but this is ridiculous for any company to accept this type of behavior regardless of their skills. You may be losing even better workers but they’ll never know.

    • Avatar
      Danielle November 9, 2022 at 1:03 am - Reply

      Most of my coworkers speak Spanish. Pretty much Dominican. It’s often me working alone. I don’t get help. They all tell me they don’t speak English. My boss said to me they do speak English. My lead and supervisor are both Spanish. My lead is to tell us our assignments in the beginning of each shift. He speaks in Spanish, even though I don’t know what he is saying. I usually have to wait and approach him when he is not busy and ask him what is our work goal for the day. I feel discriminated against for being what they call the gringo and for not speaking Spanish. I live in Pennsylvania. When I started the job know one ever said I needed to speak Spanish. It sucks. I’m not treated right. I don’t get equal help with the work. I’m lucky if I get one person’s help when busy.

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    Shalita Miller October 10, 2022 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    There are 3 of us at work and my manager and coworker speak Spanish to each other right in front of me. I even heard my name a few times and laughing — on and on every day all day. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I understand it is their culture, but I think it’s rude because I don’t know what they are saying and they speak perfectly good English. I can even understand if it is a private conversation or if it happens once in a while, but this is every day all day. I don’t know what to do.

  4. Avatar
    aldri49 December 27, 2022 at 1:49 am - Reply

    if this persists, the company may just lose its English speaking employees altogether. This was starting to happen a bit where I worked, but one saving grace was that the Spanish speakers didn’t actually all like each other. Some preferred talking to us rather than some of the other Spanish coworkers. They were all from vastly different parts of South America, so that was clearly a factor.

  5. Avatar
    Bernard February 22, 2023 at 6:46 am - Reply

    I am going though the same thing.

  6. Avatar
    Jon March 16, 2023 at 11:14 pm - Reply

    The fact you think this is a problem is silly in my book, I work for a restaurant company that does 80 million in sales a year between 22 locations, I am a executive chef and all of my employees speak Spanish amongst themselves, it’s only a problem if you can’t communicate in English to get the job done, either learn the language or get over it.

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