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My Bilingual Co-Workers Speak Spanish in Front of Me, and I Am Not Bilingual. How Do I Address This Issue?

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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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