Language in the Workplace

September 7, 2017

The owner of a McDonald’s franchise in Yellowknife has apologised to staff after a manager ordered employees to speak only English while on the job.

Al Nielsen issued the apology letter on the Labour Day long weekend after learning about an “insensitive” and “inappropriate” English-only notice distributed to employees by the manager a week earlier.

Al Nielsen, the owner of the McDonald’s franchise on Old Airport Road in Yellowknife sent this letter as an apology to staff after the restaurant manager had warned employees against speaking any language other than English while on the job. (Supplied)

CBC has not been able to reach Nielsen to comment on the matter or about any repercussions against the manager.

The unsigned manager’s letter, sent to staff in late August, advised employees that “when you are clocked in you are expected to speak English at all times. There will be few circumstances where it will be permitted but 99% of the time you should be speaking English.”

It added that any staff who “really needs to talk in another language” should go sit in the lobby.

“This is to be mindful of people who have no idea what your [sic] talking about and will reduce comfortability around other crew,” the letter states.

According to the letter, a first offence would be a warning while continued offences would result in the loss of the employee meal discount for 24 hours, a written warning documented in the employee’s file, and ultimately the possibility of the employee being suspended or fired, according to the letter.

It cites “a climbing number of complaints” from customers about staff not speaking English as the reason for the policy. However, no information on the amount of complaints was available.

Human rights concern

Lorraine Hewlett, president of the Northwest Territories’ Federation of Labour, called the idea of imposing an English-only policy on any employees “oppressive.”

With multiculturalism long since embraced in Canada, many languages are spoken, including 11 official ones in Yellowknife alone, Hewlett said. In addition to Indigenous languages, common languages in Yellowknife include Tagalog, Vietnamese, Chinese, German and Spanish.

“We’re really trying to value diversity,” Hewlett said.

‘The strength of that apology is that it expresses that the organization values diversity in all its forms, including language.’- Lorraine Hewlett, president of the Northwest Territories’ Federation of Labour

She calls it strength for any company that has employees who can speak multiple languages and be able to communicate with customers.

Employers need to tread carefully if they want to limit language in a workplace, she warned.

Although language isn’t one of the identified grounds of discrimination, according to the Human Rights Commission, it is inevitably linked to race, culture and ancestry — and those are grounds for launching a complaint.

Hewlett applauded McDonald’s for quickly quashing the English-only policy.

“I’m glad that it was thought about. I think the owner/operator issued a very well thought-out — and seemed very sincere — apology,” she said.

“The strength of that apology is that it expresses that the organization values diversity in all its forms, including language.”

Hewlett understands some people feel strange around others who are speaking a language they don’t understand. And there is a natural reaction to think they must be talking about you, if you are the one left out, “but you have to learn to not take offence.”

“There’s no offence intended.”

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