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Whole Foods changes English-only store policy

Whole Foods, N.M.
A Whole Foods Market in Albuquerque, N.M. is shown Thursday June 6, 2013, Two employees at the store say they were suspended after complaining about being told they couldn't speak Spanish to each other while on the job. The company has changed its English-only policy.Russell Contreras / AP

Aqui se habla espanol. Faced with a boycott, Whole Foods has revised its English-only language policy for employees on the job.

After two of the chain's employees in New Mexico were temporarily suspended from work for speaking Spanish, they claimed, calls for a boycott prompted Whole Foods to change its company language policy.

In a blog post, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb maintained that the two workers received one-day suspensions for unacceptable “workplace behavior,” not for speaking in Spanish as the two alleged.

But his post said that the issue had prompted the retailer, which tends to court a customer base known for more politically progressive views, to reevaluate its company handbook’s stance on English-language usage.

Previously, the company policy stipulated that employees must speak English “if you speak English and are in the presence of customers.” Conversations with other workers had to be in English “any time you are on the clock and discussing work-related tasks or subjects.”

The revision, which Robb said would be discussed at upcoming store meetings across the company, softens that wording.

“When speaking with customers or fellow Team Members, 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,” it said. Workers still are required to converse in English with shoppers “unless requested otherwise by the customer.”

“Sounds like it’s corporate revisionism,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, whose New Mexico chapter contacted Whole Foods after the incident. “For them to make a mistake of this magnitude means there are other problems,” he said. “A diverse company wouldn’t have done this.”

“They’re heading in the right direction, but we’re still not convinced they’ve done enough,” Wilkes said. “I think it should say use of Spanish in the workplace is encouraged... and the company values multilingualism as an asset.”

The League, arguing the rule violated New Mexico's constitution protecting Spanish and America-Indian languages, had considered calling a boycott of Whole Foods.

Despite its crunchy-hippie roots, this isn’t the first time Whole Foods has had to do damage control after angering liberal consumers. When promoting his new book in January, Whole Foods’ other co-CEO, John Mackey, used the word “fascism” when discussing President Obama's Affordable Care Act, a statement he later retracted after some customers called for a boycott. Mackey also provoked ire for saying climate change is “perfectly natural and not necessarily bad.”

“It’s surprising that a company like Whole Foods, which had had the reputation of being a fairly modern company, would have a system like this in place that’s so backwards,” Wilkes said of the retailer’s former language policy.

In his blog post, Robb said, “We will remain open to further changes as we continue to seek third-party perspectives.”