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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 20 * October 29, 2001

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Buenos Dias, Y’all!

There is an obvious revolution at hand, wrought by the technology of wireless communications, personal digital assistants, cell phones, digital TV and PC’s. In fact, by one futurist’s estimate, 90 percent of the technology I will be using in 2030 (albeit, probably from my assisted living facility) has not yet been invented.

However, this is an article about another revolution occurring in the United States. This one is discernible not from the pages of a technology magazine, but from emerging census data. The American folklore about our nation as a “melting pot” for the world is becoming more than a myth. It is becoming a reality.

Granted, the HR Doctor now works in Miami-Dade County, Fla. where a majority of the population is a minority — about 52 percent Hispanic. However, all around the country demographic studies show an interesting, exciting trend toward diversity which some would perhaps find scary. The trend is already here — right in my own friendly neighborhood county!

The trend not only involves ethnic diversity, an aging population, and increasing population diversity in the suburbs, it also portends language diversity becoming a center piece of our nation and its workplaces.

In the workplace, HR professionals are emerging as cultural and linguistic ambassadors to the coming new world of language and cultural diversity at work. This is not an easy role since many of the issues which are and will increasingly be arriving in the HR professional’s office will challenge the organization and its administrators.

How should I respond to the proposed disciplinary action against the county employee for speaking Spanish at work in the presence of non-Spanish speakers who are complaining? Should employees who speak another language receive additional pay or benefits? What if the language is English but the worker with one ethnic background is much better able to effectively interact with clients than another employee? Is “ethnic” pay appropriate?

What about the more complicated orientation or new employee support that may be necessary in a recruitment environment which is literally worldwide? Does the employer have any responsibility to help a new registered nurse recruited by the county in the Republic of the Philippines find housing, or get a driver’s license, or navigate in a “super mall?”

When English proficiency is poor, should the employer help the new staff member — or the staff member’s family — with access to English improvement programs? Where does the county-as-employer role begin … or end?

No small challenges. However, in the world of HR there are traditional answers just as valid now as they were 20 years ago and as they will be 20 years hence. First, use the critically important HR standard called “job relatedness.”

In determining whether to take an action — or not to — the employer has the burden to show a link between the action and something directly related to the essential functions of the job. Banning employees from speaking a language other than English may be appropriate in very limited circumstances, such as perhaps around clients or patients who would become fearful of changes in their environment of care, however, the job-relatedness link would not stand up too well when the venue is the employee break room or when no clients are being served.

The job-relatedness burden is one which should be used and construed narrowly.

The other part of the prescription for effective HR management in the world ahead is to learn to celebrate the diverse nation and workplace we have. Help every employee keep personal biases, whines or inappropriate behaviors out of the workplace. Harassment based on culture or language is going to harm the employees, the organization, the service delivered, the clients and public relations. The only persons who might be secretly pleased to come across an employer, especially a government employer, tolerating such behavior will likely be plaintiff’s attorneys!

Employees can effectively teach one another when it comes to getting along well and sharing information and experience — not only about some new software application which makes work easier and more productive, but also about language and culture skills, which can make servicing diverse clients more effective.

For managers, there is a special responsibility to be an effective role model for appreciating that the best workforce to meet the challenges facing county agencies is one which brings to bear the insights and experiences of diverse backgrounds.

Beware, however, of easy approaches. Hiring a consultant to put on a diversity program isn’t the answer. In fact, programs that simply aim at getting every participant to start singing “We Are Family” aren’t going to help in the long run — or probably in the short run either. There must be a continuous focus on how diverse skills at work affect the bottom line. Yes, there certainly is a bottom line in our county government business. It is the delivery of great customer service in a humane, legal, timely and effective manner.

The most effective employees and managers in the county workplace of the future — and the present in many places — are those who are sensitive in a positive way to the value of second language skills in modern public administration.

With these thoughts in mind, adieu, auf weidersehen, adios, and all the best from the HR Doctor.


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