Whole Foods Targeted After Language-Policy Fiasco

Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) is scrambling to untangle a messy communications problem after two associates told a reporter they were suspended for complaining about being told they couldn't speak Spanish on the job—which led to a news story that appeared Thursday morning (June 6).

That story, under headlines that included "Workers say Whole Foods banned use of Spanish" in USA Today and "Whole Foods workers say they were suspended for speaking Spanish" on an NBC website, sparked predictable social-media outrage and calls for a boycott. The equally predictable problem: Neither of those headlines is accurate.

According to the Associated Press story that started the social firestorm, two employees at an Albuquerque Whole Foods store said they were suspended with pay for one day in May. They said the suspensions came after they wrote a letter complaining about a meeting in which a manager told them and 17 other employees that Spanish was not allowed during work hours.

The retailer, which said it investigated the situation, told reporters that the associates were suspended for "rude and disrespectful behavior," that the chain has never banned Spanish, and that no one else at the meeting said that claim was made. The employees apparently didn't lose their jobs or even a day's pay.

But that's all too complicated to fit into a headline or a 140-character tweet. And that's how social-media frenzies are born: misunderstandings, oversimplifications and then fury.

Part of the problem is that New Mexico has recently seen incidents in which Spanish actually was barred from high school sports. In May, a tennis player was penalized a point for speaking Spanish during a state-championship tennis match. In April, a baseball umpire was accused of telling a first baseman not to speak Spanish during a game. The tennis referee was told not to do that again and the umpire resigned, but it's a hot-button issue in New Mexico.

But there's another language problem that might have helped Whole Foods: A plain-spoken answer to the "What happened?" question might have helped a lot more than the corporatespeak that usually issues forth in cases like this: Did Whole Foods ban Spanish? "No. Employees can speak Spanish to help customers or among themselves if no one objects. These employees misunderstood what was said in a meeting, got mad and were given the day off to cool down." That's not corporately correct, but it's the way to take the air out of an overinflated story.

For more:

- See the AP story
- See this USA Today story

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