Whole Foods Abandons English Only Policy

Whole Foods has backed off from its English-only policy and is revising its employee handbook accordingly.

The whole flap started when two employes of its Albuquerque, N.M., store claimed they were disciplined for speaking Spanish on the job. The workers were suspended for one day with pay. Whole Food claimed that they were sent home for workplace misbehavior unrelated to language.

The story evidently became a public relations nightmare for the company, including a possible customer boycott and a petition drive by left-wing organizations MoveOn.org and ProgressNow New Mexico for Whole Foods to end its English-only policy.

In a blog post, Walter Robb, Co-CEO, recently apologized for any misunderstanding and announced that the employee handbook would be changed. Whole Foods employees are referred to as team members. He noted, however, that the original language was meant to “foster inclusion, not exclusion,” but that “We hope and believe our revised language unequivocally communicates our support for our team members to honor and celebrate their cultures by speaking the language they prefer, while also helping to ensure a safe, respectful and courteous work and shopping environment.”

The new in-store guidelines, which are the subject of ongoing discussions with civil rights groups and possible further refinement, state in part: “If you speak English and you need to communicate with an English-speaking customer, please speak with them in English, unless requested otherwise by the customer.”

As far as employee-to-employee communication, the old policy seemed to require that English-speaking employees speak English only with their counterparts if they are on the clock and are discussing work-related issues. The new policy takes a slightly different approach: “When speaking with customers or fellow Team Members, please make sure you are sensitive to others who may want to join your conversation or ask you a question. If needed, switch to a common language to be inclusive and respectful.”  Team members can also alert a team leader if they need help translating from English to another language.

As the new policy is rolled out, it will be discussed with employees at team member meetings in every store.

Robb reaffirmed that the two employees in question were suspended for workplace behavior rather than for speaking Spanish while on company time.

Added Robb: “This unfortunate incident has provided us the opportunity to review and revise language in our handbook which, while in place for years, does not reflect and is not in alignment with the spirit of this company, nor our track record of respect and appreciation for our team members over the past 33 years.”

Do you think Whole Foods management acted appropriately by modifying its language guidelines?