Remember: The Customer Is Always American

All languages are equal at Office Depot. It's just that some are more equal than others.

Office Depot, that seminal source of cut-rate office supplies, now offers an additional amenity: clerks guaranteed to speak in soothing syllables of good old American English. Miami's streets may resound with a cacophony of foreign tongues, but amid the cases of paper clips and the reams of Xerox-quality bond on the shelves of Office Depot, the staccato sounds of Spanish and the crooning lilt of Creole will seldom be heard.

Executives at the Delray Beach headquarters of the nationwide chain decided to take the controversial step of adopting a modified English-only policy after some customers complained that employees in a Miami Springs store had refused to speak to them in English. The unwritten policy, which has been in place for about two months, requires that Office Depot employees are referred to as "associates" in company jargon -- address a customer in English unless the patron initiates a conversation in a foreign language. Moreover, while they're working, employees are prohibited from conversing with each other in any language besides English.

"It's because not all the employees speak Spanish, and they feel bad if they don't understand," remarks a youthful-looking cashier at the Miami Springs store, wrinkling her nose as she rings up a purchase.

"This is a customer-driven decision," counters Gary Schweikhart, director of public relations for Office Depot, Inc. "If the customer speaks Spanish and the associates speak Spanish, great! It's just a wonderful advantage to have bilingual associates who can serve all our customers. But the lead should always be to speak in English to the customer unless they are directed otherwise by the customer." So far no employees have been disciplined for disobeying the policy, Schweikhart reports, though a few were individually counseled about speaking Spanish on the sales floor.

"The feeling is that unless an associate can speak in English, they are not going to be able to be promoted to any position where they have to interface with customers," adds Schweikhart. Since the new policy took effect, the company has volunteered to pay the tuition of employees who wish to improve their English by taking language courses at a local community college. As of last week, no one had taken advantage of the offer, according to the PR chief.

Dr. Mark LaPorta, who spearheaded the 1988 drive for the constitutional amendment that made English Florida's official language, says Office Depot's policy makes good economic sense in that it facilitates precise and understandable communication. "I don't think it's my business to comment on anyone else's business except to commend [Office Depot] for their bravery because they knew they were going to get hassled for this," asserts LaPorta, a physician who specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics. Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment, but state legislators have yet to pass any English-only laws that would transform the constitutional change into something other than a rhetorical flourish.

Indeed, such laws appear increasingly unlikely. Although three out of every five Dade voters supported the official-English movement, recent trends indicate a growing tolerance for language diversity. For example, a county ordinance that barred the Metro-Dade government's use of any language except English was rescinded in 1993. The anti-bilingual ordinance, as it was known, had been adopted in 1980 in response to the Mariel boatlift. It prohibited the expenditure of county funds for publishing materials in any language other than English or for promoting any culture other than U.S. culture.

Even before the measure was officially removed from county code books, it had essentially become moot, its impact usurped by new regulations that sought to protect native speakers of both Spanish and English from job discrimination.

In May 1991, county commissioners approved guidelines requiring local companies to prove that their language policies are necessary for "safe and efficient operation" or stem from business necessity. The guidelines, which are enforced by the Dade County Equal Opportunity Board, explicitly state that "the preference of co-workers will not be accepted as a business necessity under any circumstances." Customer preference is considered a valid justification only if the firm can show that "the business will lose trade or money if staff members (i.e., salespersons, bank tellers) are not fluent in a particular language."

Federal regulations have long held that English-only rules are "presumptively illegal" and lead to discrimination against non-native English speakers on the basis of national origin.

"When a company adopts such a rule, then first of all you have employees -- who may be native speakers of Spanish or of any other language -- feeling coerced in the workplace and threatened that if they get caught [speaking Spanish], they'll face disciplinary action and may even lose their jobs," says Marcos Regalado, director of the county's Equal Opportunity Board. Regalado says his agency is investigating at least a dozen complaints against companies that attempted to enforce similar policies. The board has not initiated an investigation into Office Depot's policy. (Inquiries are usually prompted by complaints from aggrieved employees, though the board's director can initiate an investigation if he chooses to.)

Last year the board awarded a total of more than $450,000 to four Dade employees, including a manicurist and a masseuse at Studio Cosmyl who maintained they had been wrongfully fired from the Coral Gables beauty salon for speaking Spanish at work. The board also ordered that the women be reinstated.

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