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Language in the workplace

Communicating with Quebec employees; developing English-only policies

By Brian Kreissl

Like religion, language in the workplace is becoming a major concern for many employers given the increasing diversity of the Canadian workforce.

With people of so many different nationalities and ethnicities working together — coupled with Canada’s officially bilingual status — the varied and diverse linguistic backgrounds of an organization’s workforce frequently presents opportunities as well as challenges.

Language can be a pretty contentious issue, and employers need to be aware of the legal obligations placed on them, as well as best practices from a diversity management perspective. Managing diversity in the workplace involves encouraging, promoting and treating diversity as a competitive advantage. Linguistic diversity is no exception but, like other types of diversity, managing issues related to language in the workplace can be tricky, often requiring employers to balance the competing interests of different stakeholder groups.

Below are a couple of particularly important challenges facing Canadian employers with respect to language in the workplace: communicating with Quebec employees in French and developing English- or French-only policies.

Communicating with Quebec employees in French

Employers operating across Canada are sometimes guilty of failing to consider the needs of their Quebec employees when developing policies, newsletters, memoranda, employee handbooks, job descriptions, advertisements and other organizational communications.

However, it’s important to realize communicating with Quebec employees in French isn’t just a best practice — it’s also the law.

It’s important to remember there are regions outside of Quebec where French is at least one of the working languages. In the public sector, there are legal requirements to communicate in both languages in New Brunswick — the only officially bilingual province. Also, in the federal public service, employees in certain regions also have the right to work and communicate in the language of their choice.

In Quebec, however, French is the official language — in both the public and private sectors. Chapter 4 of the Quebec Charter of the French Language provides that “workers have a right to carry on their activities in French.”

This means, with certain exceptions, most employers with 50 or more Québec employees are required to communicate with them in French. Organizations with 100 or more employees in the province are also required to set up a Francization Committee, as well as those who are required to do so by the Office québécois de la langue française.

English-only policies

While employees may find comfort and camaraderie speaking with others in their native tongues, this can cause customers and clients to feel excluded. For example, I’ve heard of business meetings being conducted in a foreign language — one everyone in the department could understand — except one person.

Even in a more informal setting, it can also be unpleasant when two or more co-workers are conversing in your presence in a language you don’t understand. The natural tendency is to think those people are speaking negatively about you in another language so you can’t understand what’s being said.

To combat these types of situations, some organizations institute English or French-only policies. At first glance, such policies might appear to be discriminatory and contrary to human rights legislation. After all, nationality, ethnic origin and/or ancestry are prohibited grounds of discrimination in every jurisdiction across Canada (Quebec also bans discrimination based on language).

The problem with this approach, of course, is it risks cracking down on harmless and friendly conversations workers have in passing or at breaks. It may also risk violating human rights legislation.

Therefore, it’s important to realize that, depending on the environment and the workforce in question, such policies can be helpful and justified — as long as they aren’t too heavy-handed and are carefully worded.

Policies should explain it’s perfectly acceptable to speak the language of one’s choice in one-on-one conversations with customers, co-workers and suppliers, and during designated breaks. However, guidelines may be required with respect to official business meetings, correspondence, company functions and dealings with customers. When in doubt, it’s also a good idea to seek the advice of a qualified employment lawyer.

I’d also be interested in hearing from readers about any issues they’ve encountered with language in the workplace. In future posts, I’ll be exploring this theme further by examining bona fide occupational requirements around language, legal requirements for communicating in a language other than English or French, and workplace literacy programs.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com. Andrew Treash, a product writer for Consult Carswell, contributed to this article.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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