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Bilingual employees invaluable to you? Don’t punish them for their special skills

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Texas has a large number of Spanish-speaking residents, and a workforce that can effectively communicate with those residents can be a prized commodity.

But before you thrust additional work—in the form of translation or other special assignments—on Hispanic employees who can communicate with customers who don’t speak English well, consider the following case.

Recent case: Manuel Zamora and several other Hispanic police officers sued the city of Houston, alleging that having unique bilingual skills—which makes them especially valuable to the police department—has actually brought them lower pay, more work and fewer opportunities for promotions.

They claimed that because of their skills, the department assigned them to the “Chicano Squad,” where they spend more time on-call than other officers. They also claimed they were passed over for promotions and transfers—that the department so highly values their special skills, it won’t give them other assignments.

In short, they claimed that as a group, Spanish-speaking officers are denied opportunities available to officers who aren’t bilingual or who speak other, less common languages.

A federal court considering their case ruled they may go forward to trial. (Zamora et al., v. City of Houston, No. 4:07-CV-4510, SD TX, 2008)

Final note: What’s the best approach to keeping employees with special skills where you need them? Additional pay doesn’t hurt. But don’t cut off promotion opportunities either. Instead, offer incentives to stay where they are in lieu of promotions.

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