After being confronted with opposition from students at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), a Harvard contractor announced yesterday that it has rescinded a policy requesting that employees speak only English on the job.
A manager at Sodexho, a catering contractor that employs 34 workers at KSG, told workers last Thursday that they should speak English while working and addressing co-workers.
Concerned students met on Monday with Jayne Raffo, the Sodexho manager who initiated the stipulation, hoping to get the policy repealed.
Leslie Aun, a Sodexho spokesperson, told The Crimson that Raffo’s action was an error and did not represent a company-wide policy requiring workers to speak only English.
“[Raffo] made a mistake, but unfortunately it was not in keeping with our company’s multicultural policies,” Aun said. “The manager is a very good manager and a very good person. She’s been given some guidance about our company’s diversity and multiculturalism.”
Jesus Mena, a KSG spokesperson, said Sodexho made the initial request to their employees without the knowledge of KSG administrators.
“It is our understanding that Sodexho will again meet with their employees tomorrow to rescind their request,” said Mena, who says he personally enjoys conversing in Spanish with staff members.
Rebeca Rangel, a first-year in the master’s in public policy (MPP) program and the student who organized the meeting with Raffo, was glad to hear that the policy was going to be scratched.
“I think that the Kennedy School recognized how unprofessional and counterproductive the policy was, especially at such an international school that respects language diversity,” she said.
“Workers are really unhappy with [the proposed policy],” said James A. Woolman, a first-year in the MPP program. “Many of them can’t speak English at all and many of them are complaining because when they were hired, they were asked if they could speak English and they said, ‘No.’ [Sodexho] knew that when they hired them.”
Roffo did not return calls for comment.
Students said Raffo had intended to make the English-only policy a requirement but that she revised her initial policy into a “request” after speaking with students.
Rangel said the proposed policy was unclear about whether workers would be forbidden from speaking their native languages.
“[Sodexho] claims it’s a request, but it’s questionable because staff weren’t given any indication that there wouldn’t be repercussions for not complying with the request,” Rangel said.
Woolman was concerned that students would not be able to monitor the fallout of the policy.
“There would be no way to monitor if people were getting laid off or their hours cut because of the policy because [Sodexho is] a non-union shop,” Woolman said.
Students say the impetus for the policy was that managers felt “uncomfortable” being around employees who were speaking languages they did not understand.
“It seems like a control thing for management,” Woolman said. “When students expressed concerns, they said that it was a safety issue but the only people they are making comfortable are the managers, and they are doing it at the expense of all the workers.”
Woolman and Rangel said many of the workers converse with students in Spanish or Portuguese, and after the meeting on Monday, Raffo issued a letter that told staff to “feel free to respond and converse” with students who begin conversations in languages other than English.
Carmen J. Lopez, also a first-year in the MPP program, said Sodexho workers who work in the KSG’s cafeteria have “looked really upset” the last few days.
“The people who work for Sodexho are incredibly friendly and I think this has just been demoralizing for staff,” she said.
“Why does it improve safety? I don’t understand that link at all. [Safety] doesn’t have anything to do with mandating a language.
He added, “Maybe they should teach them English.”
Rangel, who is involved with the KSG’s STEP program—Staff and Students Towards English Proficiency—agrees with Lopez.
The student-initiated program, which currently enrolls 19 KSG employees, was founded to fill the need for English language instruction.
“[KSG] didn’t support the STEP class. They never gave any money to the student effort,” Rangel said.
“It was very difficult for us to even get a room reservation. Our reservations were canceled. There was always a pat on the back, a ‘Hey, good job,’ but there was never any money or any space to support us.”
“The whole hypocrisy of it all is that they want their employees to speak English but they don’t support efforts to help them learn,” Rangel said.
—Staff writer May Habib can be reached at email@example.com.