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Do “English Only” workplace policies discriminate against multi-lingual workers?

America is the great melting pot of the world, priding itself on welcoming the tired, poor and huddled masses from around the globe. Hundreds of years later, though, there is a movement at workplaces across the country that discourages those same immigrants from speaking in their native tongues. That movement – one where employers only allow the English language to be spoken on site – has some civil rights advocates concerned about discrimination against multi-lingual employees. Foreign-born or foreign-educated employees have reported feeling “singled out,” disenfranchised and discriminated against.

Are “English only” workplaces ever acceptable?

Well, it depends. If there are legitimate business needs that can only be met by ensuring a consistent language is spoken, then it might be that a policy that forces workers to not use their native tongue around customers, vendors or fellow employees isn’t discriminatory. If, however, the policy is one that won’t even let workers speak in their language of choice when on breaks, then it is likely to be treated as discrimination against the employees’ national origin, something which is prohibited under the U.S. Constitution.

Why have an “English only” policy?

Some businesses involve a great deal of contact with primarily English-speaking customers. Those businesses might choose to implement a workplace policy of only allowing employees to converse with clients in a single language to facilitate business operations. According to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, such a scenario is likely a “legitimate business necessity” that would justify an “English only” policy that might otherwise – in the absence of such a clear-cut business need – unfairly discriminate against those workers who speak English as a second language.

The EEOC does not have a clearly defined blanket regulation by which every “English only” policy will be judged and automatically determined to be valid or, on the contrary, discriminatory, preferring to instead make such determinations on a case-by-case basis. There are some guidelines for businesses interested in implementing a similar policy, though:

  • Don’t structure a policy in a way that forces all employees to speak English at all times during the work day; workers should be able to speak in their language of choice while taking breaks or working independently away from customers
  • Policies should only be implemented to either keep employees/customers safe or to facilitate efficient business operations; those that don’t have a direct safety or economic basis will likely be found to be unenforceable
  • Policies must be clearly and adequately communicated to workers before they will be enforceable

If you are a business owner interested in implementing a single-language workplace for your employees – or you are a worker who has been unfairly targeted by an overreaching policy – speak with an experienced employment law attorney in your area to learn more about this emerging area of the law.


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