Whole Foods changes employee language policy

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Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 12:00 am

AUSTIN, Texas — After an outcry from activists over an alleged “English-only” policy for Whole Foods Market employees, company officials said they have revised the company’s language guidelines.

Last month, two employees at a Whole Foods store in Albuquerque, N.M., said they were suspended after complaining about being told they couldn’t speak Spanish to each other while on the job.

A Whole Foods employee subsequently told an Associated Press reporter that employees must speak English to customers and other employees.

The incident prompted protests from ProgressNow New Mexico, a Albuquerque advocacy group. Activists presented a petition to Whole Foods’ Austin headquarters, calling on the company to change its policy.

In a blog post on the Whole Foods website Friday, co-CEO Walter Robb said that the two New Mexico employees were suspended for a day with pay for behavior reasons, not for speaking Spanish.

But Robb apologized “that a section of our handbook regarding (employee) interactions in the workplace was not clearly written, and for any misunderstandings or offense it has created.”

Previously, the company’s guidelines instructed employees: “If you speak English and are in the presence of customers, it is essential that the conversation be in English.”

It also stated: “If you speak English and are in the presence of (employees), it is essential that the conversation be in English any time you are on the clock and discussing work-related tasks or subjects.”

That policy, while in place for years, “does not reflect and is not in alignment with the spirit of this company,” Robb said.

The updated policy now states: “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.”

“When speaking with customers or fellow (employees), 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.”

Activists hailed the change as a victory.

“We are thankful that the company listened to its customers and was willing to revise its policies to reflect the growing diversity of our communities,” said Pat Davis, executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico.

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