Whole Foods revises employee language policy

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Associated Press

Posted on June 14, 2013 at 9:03 PM

Updated Saturday, Jun 15 at 12:32 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Facing threats of national boycotts from Latino groups and a slew of online petitions, Whole Foods announced Friday that the organic grocery chain has revised its employee language policy following the suspension of two Spanish-speaking Albuquerque employees.

Whole Foods Market Inc. Co-CEO Walter Robb said in a blog post Friday that the recent "unfortunate incident" in Albuquerque prompted the Austin, Texas-based company to revise a policy that "does not reflect and is not in alignment with the spirit of this company."

"First, we sincerely apologize that a section of our handbook regarding Team Member interactions in the workplace was not clearly written, and for any misunderstandings or offense it has created," Robb wrote. "Its intention was to foster inclusion, not exclusion."

Last week, two Albuquerque workers said they were suspended for a day with pay after complaining about the policy. A Whole Foods spokesman said that previous policy required that all "English-speaking workers must speak English to customers and other employees while on the clock, unless the customer speaks another language."

The suspensions and the news of policy sparked outrage and threats of boycotts from groups like the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizen.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican and the nation's only Latina governor, pressed the company to review its employee language policy for states like New Mexico, where Spanish is historically linked.

Robb said the employees "received paid, one-day suspensions for their workplace behavior, not for speaking Spanish."

Under the new policy released Friday, employees who speak English and need to communicate with an English-speaking customer are asked to "please speak with them in English, unless requested otherwise by the customer."

The policy also asks employees to "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" when speaking other languages on the job.

Employees who don't understand English are asked to tell a manager who will help with translation, the policy said.

Walter said the company has sent the original and revised policy to the New Mexico LULAC and the American Civil Liberties Union for their feedback. He said Whole Foods will "continue to have conversations with these organizations."

Ralph Arellanes, state director of New Mexico LULAC, said the new policy was a "step in the right direction" and was looking forward to speaking further with company officials during a scheduled meeting next month.

"Usually when something like this is uncovered there are other issues beneath the surface that need to be addressed, like the demographic of employees and management structures," Arellanes said. "New Mexico isn't a foreign country but (Hispanics) have a history here that goes back 400 years."

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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