In the Trenches: Language barrier makes communication impossible for Acme

April 3, 2008
In this installment of In the Trenches, Acme confronts a severe case of almost impossible communication.

Acme elected not to participate in the current recession, or at least to a lesser degree than many of its high-tech West Coast contemporaries. Part of the reason was that Acme doesn’t want to grow just for the sake of growth. Instead, it held back on expansion and put its resources into bringing to bear those best practices we’ve heard too much about recently, and put all its effort into improving its market offerings.

Had the company gotten too large, it would have become bureaucratic and more difficult to steer. At a manageable size, it offered certain perks lacking in mainstream manufacturing plants. Each month included at least one long weekend. New employees start with three weeks of paid vacation. The plant shuts down for the entire month of August. Most employees work while listening to their choice of media and content through a variety of personal audio gadgets. Acme wants its employees to be content while they conquer the marketplace.

One such happy camper is Mary Munthomae, who has been with the company for nearly a decade. Rather than work at her family’s restaurant, she wanted her own career. An aptitude for esoteric mathematics earned her a quality-control position, where she specialized in statistical process control. People bring freshly fabricated piece parts to her workstation for evaluation and she likes being “the decider.”

One of the employees shuttling parts from the production line to Mary’s inspection department is Loh Ren Jai Toos, a young, female Asian immigrant. Her role is constrained to being a gofer because she has a limited proficiency in the English language. Like so many immigrants before, her thought is that one can best learn English by watching television and listening to radio broadcasts. That’s why she walks around with wires connecting her ears to the music player in her pocket, singing along much too loudly with what’s being played. Even when Loh isn’t singing, anyone standing nearby can hear the tinny buzz from her ear plugs.

Her choice of genre is rap and she mimics the music quite nicely, racial epithets and all. Mary tried to explain to Loh that, in this country, the words in those songs are considered offensive and that she should stop using them in the plant, if not stop using them entirely. But, Mary found it difficult to communicate with Loh. Oddly, Loh came away from these encounters happier because she got some kind of reaction from Mary about the music. After a while, Loh began using the various epithets independently of the songs whenever she interacted with Mary.

Mary then went to Herman Dibble, her manager, to complain about Loh’s playlist, the volume at which those rap songs are played, and Loh’s insistence on singing along with them. Mary also complained about Loh using racially offensive words and phrases in the course of their work-related interactions.

At first, Mary thought Herman seemed genuinely concerned. He was glad to learn that Mary had already confronted Loh about the matter. But, he admitted, with his syrupy Southern drawl, Herman also found it extraordinarily difficult to communicate with Loh because of her limited vocabulary, high-pitched voice, mispronunciations and heavy Asian accent. A conversation with Loh left him exhausted within five minutes because of the hand waving and finger pointing that was necessary to get his message across.

And things at the plant went on as before. Mary tried to avoid Loh, but that was difficult. Mary snapped at Loh a few times, but any sort of reaction seemed to be the psychic reward Loh was seeking. After a month or two, Mary began to feel that Herman was ignoring her complaint. After all, he made no attempt to discuss her complaint with Loh or to discipline Loh. It seemed like Herman was hoping the entire matter would simply blow away.

An exasperated Mary then went over Herman’s head and took her complaint to the plant manager’s office in hopes of getting past the secretary’s desk to have someone stop the rap music, Loh’s awful singing and her insulting language. That got her some action, but not exactly what she expected.

Two days later, Herman changed Mary’s start time to minimize the potential for interaction between Mary and Loh. It took Mary less than a week to realize this solution posed problems. For one thing, Mary was the primary caregiver for her invalid widowed father. Her new working hours made it difficult to leave work on time and still have time to escort her dad to his doctor appointments. Mary approached Herman again to explain why his solution isn’t working. When Herman started making excuses, Mary demanded that he do something to stop, once and for all, Loh’s outrageous behavior.

About a month later, Mary and another employee were laid off, both at the recommendation of their respective supervisors. The only difference between the two was that the other employee was recalled within 13 weeks. But that was sufficient time for Mary to file suit against Acme for racial harassment and retaliatory discharge.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should portable music devices be allowed in the workplace? Should English proficiency be a condition of employment? Should proficiency in a foreign language be part of a supervisor’s job description? Should profanity be cause for discipline? How should we define offensive language? Does having too many workplace perks lead to aberrant employee behavior?

An attorney says:

Many employers either ban radio playing or require employees to wear ear plugs so the choice of music does not disturb coworkers in the workplace. In all likelihood, the “buzz” emanating from Loh’s earplugs wouldn’t have been offensive to Mary, or at least not as offensive as her bellowing the objectionable lyrics. Other employers have solved the audio problem by allowing workers, in turn, to select from pre-approved radio stations. Like so many problems in the workplace, this one normally can be solved by effective employer-employee communication.

Communication, however, seems to be Loh’s downfall. But, Acme can’t make the ability to speak English a condition of employment. Under our discrimination laws, employers can’t demand facility with English as a condition of hire unless it’s required by the job. Loh’s job, as a gofer, clearly doesn’t require her to speak English.

Acme should consider offering classes in English as a second language to its foreign-born employees or pay for them to attend such classes offered elsewhere. If Loh were able to speak English, she might be able to move up the corporate ladder to a better job than gofer.

Profanity should be cause for discipline, and most employers’ work rules prohibit the use of profanity in the workplace. Herman completely dropped the ball in this regard, and his thoughts about this issue should have resulted in him being disciplined. If he was unable or unwilling to address the problem with Loh, he should have marched directly into the human resources offices to seek assistance.

In the final analysis, it’s good to know that television is good for something.


Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

Whether Loh understood that her words were offensive or not, the fact is they were. When an employee brings a problem to a supervisor, it becomes the supervisor’s responsibility to resolve it. Herman dropped the ball; not because he didn’t have the tools to deal with it, but because he didn’t recognize or act on the fact he didn’t have the tools to deal with it. He could have located another employee or some translator to communicate with Loh.

In most workplaces, portable music devices can represent a distraction and a safety concern. Loh might be only a “gopher” in the plant, but overhead loads, forklifts, operating equipment, trip hazards and any number of other potential hazards are present. Workers need to be aware of their surroundings. Whether it’s rap music or talk radio, distracted people can lose focus or not notice developing hazards.

Proficiency in a common language is an “either-or” issue. Acme either establishes a policy for minimum competency in a common language, or it must provide a means for coworkers to communicate effectively. Employees must understand organizational policies, safety and health requirements and business processes. They absolutely must also be able to understand and react to industrial hazards.

But, in some industries or locations, it’s difficult to find employees who speak a common language. Multiple language support is an added expense and may slow business processes as coworkers struggle through conversations and miscommunication errors. If workers have limited communication skills, Acme should hire multilingual supervisors and make that skill part of the job description.

Of course, profanity can be a cause for discipline. If the supervisor or anyone else identifies that as an issue, the supervisor is responsible for addressing it. Infractions need to be addressed and the severity and the supervisor’s judgment determine what action should be taken. Small infractions might require a “to-the-point” discussion, while repeated or serious matters might require documentation and formal action. It’s better when people respect each other and produce a professional atmosphere.

Some statements are offensive to the vast majority of people and some things that sound harmless to one person can make someone else “trip off the line.” Supervisors have two major leadership tools in their kit: company rules and sound judgment. Company rules can define what’s offensive, but it’s tough to change cultural beliefs by fiat.

Judgment applies best in “fuzzy” situations. You can’t control what people think, but you can require employees to avoid specific behaviors, specific words and gestures. Defining offensive language requires judgment. Dealing with offensive language or behaviors requires tact and fortitude. The bottom line is to deal with it and not let it go on.

In my experience, 1% of the staff (usually the loudest people) can stir problems into any perk or benefit. If a perk doesn’t lead to an improvement in morale, productivity or other reasonable benefit, don’t put it in place. Allow radios and there’ll be arguments about station choice and volume. Allow personal devices and some will complain they’re being ignored by those using them. Put in a coffee maker and people argue about cleaning it, what kind of sweetener to use and how strong to make the coffee. If you put in a perk, define its use and make sure people comply with the approved use.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP
Organizational Reliability Professional Services Consultant
(321) 773-3356
[email protected]

An academician says:

This case reminds me of one of my first consulting assignments in an auto parts plant in Mississippi. Radios were allowed and almost everyone brought one to work. Problem was that workers in the plant had varied ethic and racial backgrounds, as well as different musical tastes. So, to hear your favorite music at your work station, you had to turn your radio up to its loudest volume, which led to a hundred or so radios blaring at top volume. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the workers ended up partially deaf.

The plant manager wanted to ban radios from the plant, but he feared a worker uprising, so a compromise was worked out. For each two-hour interval, the workers could listen to only the station designated for that time period. The designated station changed every two hours to accommodate everyone’s tastes. If you didn’t want to listen to that station, you turned your radio off. If you wanted to listen to the station, it had to be done at low volume. This solution wasn’t something most people might concoct. However, the employees suggested it, and probably for that reason, it worked.

Looking at the current case, I think that Acme, Loh and Herman are out of line on this one. Loh’s behavior and language are offensive to others and she either should change or be removed. If her English isn’t sufficient to allow her to understand the rules, then get a translator. Loh should be treated the same as anyone else in the facility. Her problems with English don’t excuse offensive behavior.

Should portable music devices be allowed in the workplace? It depends. The majority of companies probably ban them because they think they distract employees from the tasks at hand. Other companies permit them, given that they don’t interfere with the work or with others. The argument for the latter position seems to be that it makes work more palatable and also relaxes the employees, which in turn, leads to higher job satisfaction. However, one problem with this position is that the manager ends up with a bunch of issues like those at Acme or the plant I consulted for in Mississippi.

Workplace perks are good for attracting high-quality employees and in keeping them. The occasional “Loh” probably would occur with or without the perks and shouldn’t be a reason for getting rid of perks. An interesting question in this case is whether the problem is with the music device, Loh or both in combination. Herman might have tried to improve the situation by preventing Loh from using the device to see if things improve. However, I suspect the problem is more with Loh than with the music device.

If English proficiency was a nationwide condition of employment, we’d have to fire a ton of workers. Many American workers get along very well with only limited command of English. The question here is job performance, not English proficiency. Where communication in English is critical to job performance, then English should be required.

Should profanity be a cause for discipline? Definitely. Plenty of cases have held that profanity produces a hostile work environment, and the quicker a company reacts against that type of behavior, the better. If Herman had been on his toes, the problem would have disappeared quickly.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

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