Language in the workplace: Confronting tensions on the job
There is Mee Sum Ye, who emigrated from Hong Kong a year ago, working alongside Maria Elena Dios, who is Venezuelan. Isabel Casamas hails from Argentina, and Carmen Woods from Germany. Supervisor Anna Nemeth was born in El Salvador and is married to a Hungarian. Head designer Dirk Herman van den Boogard began in flowers as a 14-year-old apprentice in his native Holland.
It's not always harmonious, concedes owner Donn Flipse, a third-generation Floridian, but "this is South Florida today."
As a magnet for immigrants in the United States and the international gateway for business with Latin America and the Caribbean, South Florida faces perhaps the biggest challenge of any area in the United States to iron out complex issues related to language at work and beyond.
"We're a great melting pot, more so than other parts of the country, but we haven't quite melted together. There's potential for conflict and misunderstanding," said Anne-Marie Estevez, an employment attorney and diversity trainer at the Miami offices of the international law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
Language plays a key role because South Florida depends on international trade and tourism for its livelihood. More than 400 companies, from Citibank to Porsche and Samsung, have their Latin American and Caribbean regional headquarters here. Miami International Airport is the busiest U.S. airport for international passengers and international cargo. Those are only a few indicators of the area's strategic weight.
Companies need employees who can speak the languages of their clients.
Just how proficient they need to be, however, depends in part on where they live.
In Miami-Dade, where more than half the population is Hispanic, Spanish is basically a given, both to communicate with customers in the county or abroad.
"If you don't speak Spanish, you are at a competitive disadvantage. Spanish only brings you up to a level playing field," said Dennis Nason, president of Nason & Nason executive recruiters in Miami.
Yet Portuguese also is a plus in Miami-Dade for doing business with Brazil, the largest country in Latin America and South Florida's top trade partner, he said.
Move farther north in South Florida, however, and Spanish becomes a plus -- not a requirement. That's true in most of Broward County, where roughly 17 percent of the people are Hispanic, and where a growing list of companies are developing Latin headquarters.
"And as you approach Palm Beach County, German is a good language to speak," Nason said, because of German tourism as well as strong German investment by such companies as electronics giant Siemens and by individuals in real estate.
Companies now want Spanish for perhaps one in five jobs in Broward and one in 15 in Palm Beach, estimated Leslie Tell, regional director for temporary staffing giant Spherion Corp. in Fort Lauderdale.
Even then, language needs depend on the specific job. A sales clerk in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Broward might be required to speak Spanish, while a receptionist at a medical clinic catering to Creole-speaking Haitians in Delray Beach might find German of little help.
But the increased opportunities presented for the multilingual also prompts resentment, especially among low-wage workers who have been squeezed this decade by a weak economy and rising unemployment.
Some residents worry that Spanish will soon be needed throughout South Florida, much as it already is in Miami-Dade County.