The Whole Foods Language Police: Keystone Cops or Company Thugs?

Whole Foods now denies that Lupe Gonzales and Bryan Baldizan were suspended for speaking Spanish on the job. While the company does, in fact, have a written policy requiring employees to speak English while “on the clock” — in order to maintain what one Whole Foods manager calls “a uniform form of communication” — the employees, Whole Foods now says, were fired for being “disrespectful.”

The proof? A letter Gonzales and Baldizan wrote, asking why workers in the Albuquerque, New Mexico store could be dressed in Mexican bandito costumes (“sarapes and sombreros with fake mustaches”) on Cinco de Mayo, but are “forbidden” to speak Spanish on the job.

Nothing says respect like grotesque parodies of Mexican culture. As for the actual, living culture of New Mexico (where, by the way, not just Spanish but Ladino is spoken) — just keep it off the clock and preferably outside the store.

Ralph Arellanes, New Mexico director with the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he “almost fell off [his] chair” when he first got wind of this; now the League is threatening a nationwide boycott if Whole Foods does not drop the policy. The company says the English-only policy is necessary for “safety” and — incredible though it may seem — inclusion: if workers speak Spanish, “team leaders” and customers may feel “excluded.” How is a leader expected to lead, or customer able to shop, or feel that they belong at Whole Foods, or in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for goodness sake, with all that Spanish being spoken around them?

It’s tempting to write this off as yet another example of the folly of top-down corporate policy-making: policies imposed from above usually hit the floor with a thud; hilarity or disaster ensues. There’s also a cautionary tale here about policing language, which hasn’t worked since the days of Babel. The language police usually turn out to be Keystone cops.

keystone-cops-granger
Or, worse, they end up offending people, and the policy-makers look historically ignorant, culturally arrogant and out of touch.

I wonder, however, if there’s something else at work here. People who speak the same language — a language “team leaders” don’t speak — are able start their own conversations about work and other topics. They can talk about their lives and their families. They can form new bonds and build networks within and beyond officially recognized teams.

Those informal bonds can pay off. It’s been repeatedly shown that unofficial, loose, self-directed, peer-to-peer social bonds help people learn from one another and develop new approaches to their work: people who share a language can share practices that have proven effective, find new ways to do things, or create unwritten rules and new combinations that will help them collaborate.

On the other hand, of course, workers can use a language they share to talk about the realities of their jobs, the possibilities they see for themselves within the organization, the conditions under which they work as well as the barriers to their advancement. And they can talk about their Anglophone leaders, too. I suspect those are conversations Whole Foods — “a staunchly anti-union enterprise” run by a man who sees himself as the benevolent father of his workers — probably wants to nip in the bud.

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