ESL classes could offer alternative to problematic English-only policies
- At the University of Colorado Boulder, workers are enhancing their English language skills in a program that allows them to attend classes during work hours. CU Boulder's Employee English Language Program accepts participants from all levels of employees, including custodial workers and housing and dining staff to increase their proficiency in English and potentially advance them along their careers. Sixty employees — who natively speak a variety of languages including Chinese, Nepali, Lao, Spanish, Tibetan and Vietnamese — have participated in the class since it began about a year ago.
- In addition to letting workers learn on company time, the program involves learner's supervisors, who identify strong candidates for the classes and help instructors focus subject material related to participants' work.
- Focused on increasing their success with recruitment and retention of employees, the program is designed to enhance collaboration within teams and with cross-campus partners. A recent internal job posting netted the university 17 applicants — a record it attributes in part to the program.
This learning initiative exemplifies how employers can address language barriers in a legal, productive way. Formal English-only policies are generally a no-go, from a legal standpoint. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published guidance on such workplace rules. An employer could adopt an English-only policy, for example, if it provides advance notice of the rule and can show that it is justified by business necessity.
Otherwise, an employer could be walking a very thin line. A group of Spanish-speaking housekeepers at the University of Maryland, for example, told reporters at the school's student newspaper that their manager frequently chastises them for speaking their native language. According to one employee, the dorms where housekeepers work harbor a culture that discourages workers from using their mother tongues.
CU's solution offers a legal, productive and motivating solution to the problems language barriers sometimes create. Not only do employees better their English through the classes, but, as CU noted in its report, a record number of employees also applied for an internal job posting after the classes began. This suggests that employers that devote effort to upskilling their own employees may expect workers to stay and even climb through the ranks.