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Cepeda: Communications breakdown
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CHICAGO — "Inclusive" and "diversity" are the buzzwords in corporate America these days.

Inclusive generally means that people should not be made to feel purposely left out, and diversity refers to the many differences — whether they be religious, political, racial or ethnic — that people bring to their communities, schools and businesses.

Specifically, these two words are prominently used in the culture and mission statement of Whole Foods, the upscale "foodie" store that last week was accused of suspending two employees who complained about the company's English-only policy.

The employees claimed that Whole Foods had unduly disciplined them for expressing dissatisfaction about the company's prohibition on speaking Spanish to each other while on the job. The grocer says the employees in question were suspended, with pay, only as a result of their rude and disrespectful behavior in response to a misunderstanding about the store's language policy — and not for speaking Spanish.

This kind of infuriating story illustrates the cluelessness and differing expectations of conduct that factor into dealing with the serious issue of how we communicate with each other in an increasingly multilingual country.

First the cluelessness. This story blew up on social media networks last week as people with little information, aside from an accusatory headline, started condemning Whole Foods as everything from discriminatory to anti-diversity, and racist.

Hey, we should all react to wrongdoing if it truly exists. But on social media, everyone is guilty until proved innocent. Even if the charge is wrong, jumping to conclusions doesn't help already tense race relations.

For those who missed the follow-up reporting on the story, a Whole Foods representative told the media that the store's investigation turned up 17 employees who attended the meeting at which the language policy was discussed and confirmed that at no time were they told they couldn't speak Spanish.

But say they were. What's the problem? Not too long ago people understood that when you enter into an employment agreement with a company, you're generally expected to follow their policies.

Whole Foods' rules state: "English-speaking Team Members must speak English to customers and other Team Members while on the clock. Team Members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work. Additionally, this policy does not apply to conversations among Team Members and customers if all parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication."

Hardly draconian. Either way, employees can choose to follow them and work there or find a different job.

From an employer's point of view, I want my diverse workforce to, as Whole Foods has stated, have "a uniform form of communication." This is common sense.

It is human nature to feel left out when some of the people in a group setting are speaking to each other with words the rest can't understand. This isn't bigotry; it's hard-wired, evolutionary fact. Group cohesion only occurs when individual group members behave cooperatively, not individualistically.

This explains why every time the subject of not speaking English in this country comes up, people get very upset — because language seems like a proxy for the ultimate group cohesion: allegiance to our flag.

If Whole Foods wants its teams to use a common language while on the clock — and minimize any heat they might get from customers who might also feel excluded if they heard employees speaking to each other in a language they don't understand — here's a news flash: Whole Foods is well within its legal rights to do so.

Besides, deferring to others is inclusive. My Mexican mother and Ecuadorean father taught me that it's rude to speak Spanish in front of those who can't understand it. In their own home they rarely, if ever, speak Spanish in front of my husband and children who speak only English. They just consider it good manners.

Those who are concerned about how Latinos are perceived in America — as unable or unwilling to speak English and more connected to their native countries than to this one — might consider that a little courtesy can go a long way.

If you're bilingual, it won't kill you to speak English around English-only speakers. And who knows, the small kindness of not excluding others might even make life for all Latinos in this country a little better.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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