Whole Foods Says: Inglés Sólo En El Trabajo

by Yesha Callahan

Whole Foods Says No Espanol En El Trabajo

Last month, a Whole Foods in Albuquerque, New Mexico suspended two of their employees after they complained about being told they couldn’t speak Spanish to each other while on the job.  In an interview with the Associated Press, Bryan Baldizan said he and a woman employee decided to write a letter to their manager who told them according to company policy, they were not allowed to speak Spanish during working hours.  Unfortunately, they received a one day suspension, instead of having their issue addressed.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Baldizan, who works in the store’s food preparation department. “All we did was say we didn’t believe the policy was fair. We only talk Spanish to each other about personal stuff, not work.”

When contacted about their policy, the higher ups at Whole Foods didn’t seem to be on the same page.

Libba Letton, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, said after an investigation it was determined that it was a misunderstanding and they were not told they couldn’t speak Spanish.  But the employees were suspended with pay for their rude and disrespectful behavior at work.  

But on the other hand, Ben Friedland, Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain Region Executive Marketing Coordinator, said having a one-language work environment ensures safety, “Therefore, our policy states that all 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.” He also went on to say that the policy doesn’t forbid  employees from speaking to customers who don’t speak English, “parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication.”

In a previous life, I worked as an Human Resources Manager for one of the largest flooring manufacturers in the U.S. On several occasions I had to travel to the corporate office located in Georgia for various training sessions and team building activities. One time in particular, I was assigned to conduct diversity training for the manufacturing division and warehouse employees because there were issues between the Spanish speaking employees and the non-Spanish speaking employees.  This company in particular did not have a language policy that said “English Only”, but plenty of the non-Spanish speaking employees felt there needed to be one. Their biggest complaint was that they thought it was rude, and by rude, a lot of them assumed the Spanish speaking employees were talking behind their backs. In the end, a policy was never written enforcing an English only working environment, but there were strides made by implementing ESL classes, as well as Spanish lessons for those who wanted to learn the language.

With the Whole Foods issue, and the complaint coming out of  Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has the largest Spanish speaking population in the U.S, Whole Foods may want to re-evaluate their policy.  This policy just doesn’t affect people who speak Spanish in their New Mexico store, but other employees who are multilingual elsewhere.  Whole Foods needs to realize in today’s society, English is a second language for many people and having employees that are multilingual could benefit their bottom line.

What do you think about Whole Food’s language policy?

  • Mademoiselle

    “I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you….”

    If you’re paranoid enough to need rules to prevent other people from speaking another language around you, I say just learn the other language and quash your fears.

    Granted: people should not hold business specific conversations in any language other than the main language of the locale, but personal conversations (even if they are talking about someone behind their backs) shouldn’t be sanctioned. That’s like saying no one is allowed to whisper because you might be talking about someone. Maybe it’s just a private chat, and as long as it doesn’t impede business, people should be free to have casual conversations in whatever language they’re comfortable with. This is a silly waste of energy and display of insecurity.

  • Miakoda

    English is the dominant language in America, therefore, those who come here should be able to speak it.

  • lainey

    seriously how ignorant are you to not want to learn another language just for kicks? hmmm, it would only “up” your value. Looking back at my parents who did everything correct in my education, I am almost kinda ticked that they didn’t insist that I take a another language in highschool.

  • JS

    While I am usually against people spouting “English only” in US, when it comes to communicating in work environments on the clock I agree one unified language should be used. Makes communication between employees more seamless. It doesn’t seem like Whole Foods is being discriminatory either as they said during breaks and lunches they are free to speak however they want. Furthermore the employees say they aren’t speaking in Spanish about work related issues it is their personal conversations. Seems to me they should be spending more time working instead of having personal conversations while on the clock.

  • JS

    Why are they having so many personal conversations on the clock that their speaking in Spanish has become a problem though? WF said they could speak how they wanted on breaks and during lunch but if they are on the clock, supposedly working then there shouldn’t be all this time for personal conversation.

  • Cent

    I definitely agree with Whole Food. Whether another language in the work place is secluding yourself. It sends a message that you want to separate yourself from others. To me it sends a message that I’m not interested in being associated with you on a friendly basis at work just with someone like me. BTW I have learned 2 languages other than English, Spanish and French

  • http://gravatar.com/geenababe geenababe

    I really don’t have a clear opinion on this one because I can see both sides. The only thing that annoys me is how some people can live here for ten years or longer and not know one word of English. I understand not wanting to lose your identity but if I live in a country and planned on making it my permanent home you best believe I am going to learn the language at least some of the language.

  • Mademoiselle

    I’ve never been in a work environment where personal conversations were confined to break periods only. From back when I worked retail as a teenager, through my internships in college, until now as a mid-career professional, personal conversations pop up several times a day intertwined with business hours. I do it, I hear others doing it, it happens.

    In my office, there are lots of Chinese and Indian people. On a typical day, I’ll hear 2 to 3 Chinese chats, 1 to 2 Indian chats, 1 French chat if one of my African colleagues drops by my desk for a hello, 1 Russian chat if the colleague next to me is on the phone with his family, 1 Haitian-Creole chat if I’m on the phone with my family, and 1 Spanish chat if I show up to a global meeting a few minutes early. And when those conversations aren’t taking place, every so often a non-speaker of a particular language can be heard asking for the proper way to say something in someone else’s language. Just this week I asked my manager about an Indian pronunciation.

    There’s camaraderie in language, and that happens spontaneously. So to say “it’s ok to speak your language during these set minutes of the day” is very unrealistic, especially in any organization that expects to be or become globally recognized. Life isn’t siloed enough to completely separate business interactions from personal interactions into neat hourly segments of the day.

  • http://www.myblackfriendsays.com myblackfriendsays

    Employees that speak English are not really able to have personal conversations while working, so why should Spanish speaking employees be able to? Plus, all it takes is a customer that understands Spanish, and then they are hearing a potentially unprofessional conversation. I would have a problem with it if they banned Spanish during breaks, but they don’t–so I think it’s fair.

  • http://gravatar.com/worshipandpraise JN

    There is something very elitist about Whole Foods. Where I used to live, Whole Foods moved into a gentrifying neighborhood (read: incoming White people) that used to be primarily Spanish, and replaced a Spanish food store. I get the logic of “one language in the workplace,” but I don’t think it hurts to be able to speak your own language in the workplace. I think that they can expand their reach if they were more inclusive.

  • sami

    I have to disagree. While you make valid points about what others may assume, the actuality could simply be that speaking in my first language is a matter of comfort and habit, not an intent to distance myself. Personally, when I speak to my family I switch in between my native tongue and English without consciously realizing it until a friend or other person mentions it. It’s not to be rudder out disrespectful, but sometimes I can’t think of the English translation for what I want to say, or I get really excited about what we’re talking about and forget to speak in English.

    I honestly think it’s a matter of comfort, not malicious intent.

  • sami

    Well then shouldn’t the rules be directed towards not having personal conversation instead of signaling out a specific language group? And if this Whole Foods is located in New Mexico, I’m betting that a decent portion of the customers will be able to speak Spanish. I don’t know any real statistics on that, just a hypothesis.

  • sami

    I feel some type of way about this. Problem is, I don’t know how I feel lol. On one hand, I see everyones point. Personal conversations shouldn’t be happening on the clock and if they’re allowed to speak Spanish in the break room, it shouldn’t be a problem. But the reality of the situation is personal conversations happen in the work environment constantly, as one other comment already stated. That’s how relationships are built and how a company develops it’s work culture. And I feel in a state that has a substantial Hispanic demographic, banning Spanish as a form of communication has much deeper undertones than just not wanting to offend customers. Language is an important tool in civic engagement. When you start placing bans on language, you effectively weaken a targeted community. So yeah I get the reasoning whole foods provided, but I think the residual effects of such a rule can also negatively impact Hispanic Americans.

  • http://gravatar.com/jhenisis jhenisis

    I just wonder if the reaction would be the same if the employees were German or French speakers? Would management think customers catching clips of words and phrases in French before being waited on in English would add to the ambiance of a high end store full of specialty and gourmet food options? Would the sound of words trailing off in German encourage a customer to join in the conversation and share their connection to the German language? Did actual customers complain about hearing Spanish or did management decide on its own that would be distasteful?

    In an area with a high Spanish speaking population like New Mexico, which language is really most appropriate and accessible for people in the area? English or Spanish? I think professionalism should be kept in place within a friendly environment. Management has the difficult task of trying to strike that balance between making employees feel valued and keeping customers feeling comfortable. Side conversations though happen while productive work is being undertaken not just before or after. Whole Foods should stress professionalism and leave the policing of which language is actually spoken between them to the employees themselves. Imagine if Whole Foods caught employees using slang to say something like disgruntled deliverymen tend to “trip” from time to time and made an issue of it. Many black folks manage to maintain the integrity of our personal speech patterns while at the same time observing mostly standard English on the job. There is a line, I’ll admit. But I would hope we who have experienced racism under the guise of needing to adhere to societal/corporate norms would be thinking critically not merely towing the line at a time when much of white America is preoccupied with the idea of being unseated as the most populous racial group in this country.

  • Simone L

    I think their reasoning is that people automatically assume you’re talking about them when you use another language. I don’t know. My mom ran a medical office in Manhattan and most of the front office staff was Hispanic, and unless they were talking to non english speaking patients, they had to speak english. Mehh, who knows their real reasoning. But I have a crazy story to tell.

    My mom said back in her secretary days, a new nurse told her two other nurses were talking about her in Spanish, calling her all these derogatory names and they expressed their disgust of how “black” she was. Little did they know that she was a black Hispanic. She turned around and gave them the verbal lashing of their lives. By the time she was done, they were apologizing profusely.

  • Mademoiselle

    I was hoping someone would draw the parallel to slang in this conversation. Language has so many uses — from restricting a population (i.e. slaves were frequently separated from people of their village and prevented from speaking their native tongues to control uprisings) to facilitating knowledge (i.e. helping a shopper find a particular food that is unique to their cultural palates) to providing safety (i.e. venting about a manager without jeopardizing your job) to maintaining privacy that others feel entitled to violate for their own purposes (i.e. wire tapping Civil Rights leaders, etc). Also, let’s not forget that a majority of personal conversations that take place during the course of business is conducted in English. So, I agree that this tiptoes along the line of targeting a group of people (speakers of other languages) vs managing professional decorum.

  • BeanBean

    I agree with Whole Foods. In the work environment you should speak English. It’s a business, it’s all about making your customers feel comfortable and welcome. Most people assume that others are talking about them when they hear a group of employees speaking another language. Where I live there are a lot of new Nigerian immigrants. Two of the women I work with both speak Yoruba, but at work they only speak ENGLISH to each other.

  • cjl

    Maybe Whole Foods should stop speaking, Asshole not everyone understands that!!

  • Starla

    Whole Foods is not an ethnic store so I can see why they have that policy. I guess they want to know if staff is bad mouthing the company or planning ish. When you have expensive stores paying cheap wages of course they want to know what staff is talking about.

  • talaktochoba

    don’t worry, Whole Foods;

    before you know it, pretty soon you and your stupid racist management and their policies will soon be in the minority, and then you will get to write letters to your bosses asking to speak English on the job;

    maybe you’ll only get suspended one day, too…

  • http://www.myblackfriendsays.com myblackfriendsays

    If they had a “no personal conversations” rule (which they probably do informally,) there would be no way to make sure it was being followed if the manager wasn’t bi/tri/lingual. And that’s not something Whole Foods needs to require if they don’t think it’s essential for the job.

    If I worked in France, I would not expect to be allowed to speak in English while I was on the clock. That’s why it’s called work–we all have to do things that we don’t want to do while we’re there.

  • Miakoda

    Are you, because I’ve been to many places (Dunkin Donuts, Quiznos, Subway…) where the employes could barely speak English.

  • Miakoda


  • http://gravatar.com/mbm1ame mbm1ame

    I can understand where the company is coming from, I worked in a company where t a large majority of the team members where foreign speaking students. They all came from the same country and all spoke the same language.
    They spoke English with very thick accents, (So it was hard ienough to understand them sometimes) they spoke their own language, between themselves literally during office hours, and all hours. You can imagine what it was like being in room full of Asian people who were your colleagues and not understanding a word they are saying they could be gossiping about you to your face you wouldn’t have a clue, (it did not help with team atmosphere)
    It also made it hard for the team leader to exercise her authority, it was like there was a second authority in the room which was one of their friends. I’m all for being able to speak your own language in the workplace, maybe during your lunch hour but sometimes people do take advantage. But I’m sure there’s more to the story than these two are letting on

  • victoria

    There is no official language in the USA at the federal level. But this company has a one language work environment so how can the workers complain when they are breaking policy? Personally, I think personal conversations should not take place in front of customers and English should be spoken. Professionalism

  • Sheena

    Sorry, but I’m on Whole Food’s side with this one. If you took the job knowing how to speak and understand english, then speak english while on the clock. If you must discuss a private issue with someone, pull that person aside and talk with them privately like the rest of us. It is automatically assumed by many people that if you start speaking a different language in front of those that don’t understand it, you’re talking about them, saying something in poor taste (like racist, sexist, or some type of biased comments), or plotting something. So that there is clarity, and because this is not a spanish speaking establishment, an english only policy while ON THE CLOCK is reasonable. It is no different that a person who speaks extreme, unintelligible slang at work. Its unprofessional because customers, coworkers, and your supervisor cannot understand you. No clarity and your staff could be undermining you to your face and you wouldn’t know it.

    I live in an area with a booming Latino population. One of my friends is Puerto Rican and she is very light and has blonde hair and grey eyes. She looks white. We were shopping one day and while in line she turned around and started cussing two Latino men behind us out in the middle of their conversation. She overheard them making vulgar comments (racist and sexist comments about what they would do sexually with a white and a black girl) about us and I wouldn’t have know had I been by myself. After reading this article I thought about how many people are sexually harrassed at work because they don’t know the language the perpetrators are speaking. How many racist and derogatory comments may be made right in front of peoples faces and they don’t even know what’s going on. Total disrespect. It doesn’t help build team morale or cohesiveness among workers. Workers may undercut authority every chance they get.

    As of right now, the official language in America is english. If you work in an establishment that requires you to speak english on duty, then suck it up and speak english. Use your native tounge for breaks and down time.

  • Mademoiselle

    What’s the difference if someone says something derogatory to your face and if that same person thinks it, waits until s/he’s at a bar, and says it to his/her buddies about you? I agree that business should be conducted in English and that people should be cognizant and respectful of the impression they’re making when they hold personal conversations in any language in front of customers/business partners/etc, but if the only reason anyone wants to regulate other people’s language is to control whether people are talking about you, it’s a losing battle. If my old manager knew how many times I called him an ass in English while at work (because that’s how I feel about him), I’m sure he’d have a problem with it, but it wouldn’t stop me thinking it or repeating it in personal conversations with others. As long as I kept that speech away from key stakeholders and didn’t let it affect productivity, my opinion of him were mine to be had. The language that opinion comes in matters the least.

  • Me27

    “You can imagine what it was like being in room full of Asian people who were your colleagues and not understanding a word they are saying…”

    Whatever it is you felt, I’m sure they feel the same way when they are in a room full of English speaking people. If they were gossiping, it would be no different than when English speaking people gossip about each other. It seems like you are more bothered by the fact that you couldn’t understand what they were saying.

  • Me27

    There is no official language in America.

  • http://gravatar.com/mbm1ame mbm1ame

    No I’m not, I’m foreign born myself and I speak a second language. but if you’re at work? its a work environment and you’re told to speak English, you treat it as such.

    So I was very bothered by the fact that my colleagues used their language as a tool in a workplace to divide,disaffect and manipulate office politics in their own way, so it affected my work environment. If they followed the rules and only used their language among themselves during lunch,I couldn’t care less.

  • JS


    The amount of personal conversations one can have vary from job to job and manager to manager when it comes to policing the policy. In general though if you have a customer facing job you want to make yourself available to customers. Personally, I would feel awkward interrupting an English speaking personal conversation, let alone if it was in a different language. However at least in English I can listen for when one person finishes a complete thought before barging in midway. I probably wouldn’t even approach two employees speaking in a different language, I would probably assume they didn’t work there.

    I shop at Whole Foods on the regular for groceries. In fact I even go there during my lunch to get stuff from their hot bar. Never once in Whole Foods, nor any other big grocery store for that matter, have I seen employees standing around chatting with each other. The thing with grocery stores and a lot of other jobs in food service/supply is there is always something to do and rarely, unless you are in the back are you doing that task with someone else.

  • JS

    I think you are reading too far into this. They aren’t banning Spanish across the board. They never said employees could not speak it to customers or if it was required for a work related concern. However, it is also apart of building a good work environment and culture if everyone is on the same page as far as communication goes. I doubt a customer would be offended if they heard a Spanish employee speaking in Spanish, however, they might be less likely to approach for help if they think the person can only speak in Spanish. I think Whole Foods wants to discourage that. It also wants to create a cohesive environment for communications.

    Let me give you a good example. I lived in Tokyo for awhile. Me and a friend were trying to find a club and were talking about directions. A group of people our age who looked like club-goers were passing us so we stopped them to ask for directions. Before I could even open my mouth to ask in Japanese, they assumed I didn’t know Japanese because they heard us speaking English not 2 secs before. In their best broken English they told me they couldn’t speak English. They were completely stunned when I spoke in Japanese, but it just goes to show the apprehension people feel when faced with a language they don’t know. It’s not a racially charged thing, its completely natural to be apprehensive about things you aren’t familiar with. Something people should try to get over in the day to day but it is not a very profitable business model.

  • talaktochoba

    it doesn’t matter one whit what language anyone speaks–i believe a certain bloody little war was fought over that very principle–i.e., freedom of speech–we all were forced to worship in history class;

    Whole Foods hasn’t a chicken leg to stand upon–these employees can speak Klingon if they wish, and any sensical person need only wait for a pause in the conversation all conversations have to ask for something, if they cannot wait to be noticed most people in any culture are polite enough to do;

    as for the number of down times, that is so absurdly irrelevant it cannot be addressed without laughter–who are you and me to decide when some stranger’s equally strange work is done?

    we are not talking about children here, but adults who require none of our supervision, on the job or off;

    why even interest yourself what they may be talking about–it is, after all, a private conversation people are allowed to have on any job and not include you;

    once upon a time they used to beat us as slaves/Native American and other “savages” (Mexicans, etc.) severely for speaking our native languages, practising our own religious rites, even doing tribal dances;

    some of the comments here attempting to defend Whole Foods show just how enslaved we still are, 150 years after the whip, 75 after the rope, 50 after the police dog and 15 after the Tea Party…

  • talaktochoba

    your example of Japanese lacks something in fact;

    you are speaking of a people who have learned in their history classes Americans have a distinct imperialist attitude sprinkled liberally with genocidal tendencies–one need only look at the treatment of blacks and Native Americans there, Hawaiians, Samoans, Vietnamese and Filipinos abroad;

    these are the people who invaded Tokyo Bay with the Great White Fleet literally holding 15 in. Guns to the heads of state to force them to “modernise” or be colonised into “civilisation”, and when those efforts collided with the interests of the European powers in their own territorial waters, provoked a conflict that saw the completely racist and unnecessary dropping of nuclear weapons on an already starving island nation when a simple blockade like the one the German U-boats put around England would’ve clearly sufficed;

    as if the horror stories still told by grandparents surviving that holocaust weren’t enough, the occupying armies of the victorious European and american powers set about eradicating any remnant of Japanese traditional culture a financial profit couldn’t be made from, rendering the whole nation a world joke for its cheap and shoddy exports controlled strictly by those same powers;

    oh, and did I neglect to mention the near constant rapes of their women by soldiers that go unreported to this day, the brutal trade concessions that must be made to avoid the same crippling embargoes that led to war in the late 1930s, the surrender of homelands outside the main island for colonies to the major powers that to this day have little to no strategic value?

    is Japan innocent? Nanking and other atrocities clearly say no, but you’re right, those Japanese have no reason to play dumb upon approaching any group of American strangers, just like Native Americans and slaves didn’t and black men don’t to this day…

  • JS

    Okay so massive unrelated tangent sside… the main point I am making is that people are uneasy approaching/being approached by others speaking in a different language than them. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with racism or discrimination or being close minded. It’s natural for us to be uncomfortable with things we are unfamiliar with. Does that mean people should change themselves for our comfort? No. However Whole Foods as a publicly traded company is worried about profits and sales. If customers are off put or made to be uncomfortable then its not good for business.

    Also sidenote: Japanese learn English in schools but it’s like we learn Spanish here (although they start learning it much younger). Most aren’t that good at it unless they have spent time abroad or are really interested in our culture. Many have no interest in learning to speak it.

  • talaktochoba

    massive unrelated tangent, you say?

    i suppose that depends upon what side of the A-bomb you are on when it falls;

    and although Whole Foods is a business, the customers are there for one thing–to buy products, not legislate what employees speak to each other;

    were it German, Dutch, French or any other white Latin language the employees were speaking, we wouldn’t be having this discussion because Whole Foods wouldn’t have a problem with that;

    i don’t have a problem around Germans speaking German, Italians speaking Italian, Belgians, Swiss, Dutch or anybody else, because in place of not understanding their tongue i make it a point to communicate to them i give less than a tinker’s d**n if they’re feeling smugly superior everyone here has sensed foreigners do and talking about me;

    you seem to miss the subtle implication of racism inherent in your remark “customers have a right to feel comfortable” around employees, implying their native tongue is not good enough or acceptable in the customer’s presence;

    that harkens back to other comments recent here, concerning You’re having to wear two masks and growing tired of having to disarm whites’ latent fear of black men wherever he goes;

    employees don’t have to check their native tongue at the door just to appease a narrow-minded company policy or the latent racist fear of a few ignorant customers;

  • talaktochoba

    i had a supervisor like that, too–so bad, in fact, i spent a good deal of my time, unbeknownst to him, talking other incensed employees, male and female, out of doing him grievous bodily harm;

    believe me when i say this, you insult asses of every stripe…

  • JS

    I didn’t miss anything I said it doesn’t always have to do with racism and discrimination. It’s natural for people to be uncomfortable with what they are unfamiliar with. Could be because of racism, or could be because they feel awkward interrupting a conversation, etc.

    Bottom line whatever the reason, it hurts Whole Foods’ profit a customer wanted to know where the kale chips were but didn’t ask and didn’t get it because of their discomfort with the employees speaking in a different language.That’s $7 Whole Foods just lost. Its bad business to base your model of operations around your employees comfort and not your customers.

    Whole Foods is a publicly traded company. Legally their only responsibility is to their share holders alone. Not being an activist for interracial/intercultural relations in the US. Only leg these employees have to stand on is if like you mentioned German or French, etc, was being spoken as well but no one reprimanded that.

  • http://twitter.com/cherubicnerd L.Hoskins (@cherubicnerd)

    thank you! you bring up valid points. I am surprised by the ignorance on display in these comments. surely,if the two guys were black,they wouldn’t be siding with whole foods.

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