Whole Foods English Only: Policy is Not Xenophobic

After two Whole Foods employees in Albuquerque sent in a letter of dissatisfaction to their boss, they were suspended for a day from work.

What was the issue of contention? Whole Foods’ English-only policy.

According to the company website, Whole Foods requires employees to speak only English during their work hours, except in cases where the customer wants to speak another language.

At a recent staff meeting at the Whole Foods in Albuquerque, team members were informed of this rule, and two of them thought it seemed unfair. After the meeting, they wrote a letter to their manager questioning the policy, and they were both subsequently suspended. The two employees firmly believe it is because they sent in the letter, while Whole Foods insists that both were guilty of unspecified “rude and disrespectful behavior.”

The English-only policy has since gained a lot of attention, with many saying that it violates New Mexico’s constitution, which promises equal footing for Spanish and certain Native languages. The New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens has even threatened to stage a nation-wide boycott of Whole Foods employees if the policy is not changed. For its part, Whole Foods claims the policy is to promote a “safe working environment” by creating a uniform communication method.

As someone who speaks multiple languages as a consequence of both my heritage and my education, I think Whole Foods’ English-only policy is perfectly acceptable. Let me start with the fact that one of the reasons I love living in D.C. is the fact that every time I walk through the streets, I hear at least three different languages. I am no xenophobe, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if Whole Foods did change their language policy.

All that being said, the language policy Whole Foods has in place currently is also not xenophobic, but merely a question of safety and politeness.

Whole Foods does not mandate English in their store as a whole (which would certainly qualify as xenophobic, among other things), but merely among their staff. There are exceptions to their rule that allow employees to speak to customers in another language, which allows customers to feel comfortable. And it’s impossible to deny the value of an English-only policy in a crisis, such as a fire in the building. All employees should be able to speak to each other effectively in such situations.

The only time when this policy is actually preventing someone from speaking another language is between employees when on the clock. To clarify, the policy does not extend to lunch or afternoon breaks, just while the employees are actively working on the floor, probably in view of customers. I don’t see a problem with mandating English between employees in these spaces. In my bilingual household, whenever we have non-Hindi speakers over, my family always speaks in English. It’s a simple matter of politeness and of making the guests feel welcome, and we expect similar treatment from our customer service representatives. If Whole Foods can set certain ground rules for politeness from their employees (i.e. wearing appropriate clothing and using a respectful tone of voice), then I don’t see why they can’t determine the language of the workplace as well.

The only real problem that I see here is over the legitimacy of the suspension, which is something the company itself must investigate, either internally or in court if the employees decide to sue. But as for the English-only language policy, it's really not all that bad.

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Medha Chandorkar

As a junior at Georgetown University in Washington DC, I'm studying Government, Women's and Gender Studies, and Justice and Peace Studies. I'm interested in social justice issues, particularly women's rights in the developing world, and politics. Outside of school, I love dancing and reading, and I'm a huge TV / movie buff. In the future, I hope to become a lawyer but right now, I'm just focused on the moment.

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