Be Careful When Setting Up an 'English-Only' PolicyWhen your company’s staff is culturally diverse, it can be tempting to require all employees to only speak English during the workday. You may be thinking it’s easier to promote unity and teamwork when everyone speaks the same language.

It may not be legal though. This is a confusing area, and it is one that is becoming increasingly complicated due to a rise in the number of complaints being filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state agencies.

To give you some background, there is no federal law that specifically prohibits employers from adopting an English-only policy. But there is a history of the EEOC suing companies with such policies by invoking Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on national origin.

The EEOC requires compelling business reasons for English-only rules. Arbitrary policies can result in discrimination charges, especially if the company tries to enforce such a rule during breaks or other off-duty time.

In the words of the EEOC, “If an employer believes the English-only rule is critical for business purposes, employees have to be told when they must speak English and the consequences for violating the rule. Any negative employment decision based on breaking the English-only rule will be considered evidence of discrimination if the employer did not tell employees of the rule.”

Three Relevant Cases

Given the sensitivity of English-only rules, it is worthwhile to look at some cases that illustrate how employers should handle the issue. Here are three:

Case 1

In a lawsuit filed by the EEOC in 2015, three Italian restaurants located in New York State created a hostile work environment for Hispanic employees based on their national origin. The co-owner demanded that the workers speak only English, and fired one employee in retaliation for his complaint.

According to the lawsuit, on an almost daily basis, the restaurants’ co-owner subjected Hispanic workers to slurs because of their national origin. In addition, the co-owner demanded that Hispanic employees speak only English in the workplace. To illustrate his point, he took a dollar bill from his wallet, held it, and told the Hispanic workers, “This is America, you must speak English.” The lawsuit also alleged that the Hispanic workers were given less favorable treatment regarding leave and sick days.

EEOC Trial Attorney Jadhira Rivera added, “Since the harasser was an owner, the workers felt that they had no recourse but to endure the ill-treatment. We want to insure that all workers know they do not have to be subjected to slurs based on their national origin in order to keep their jobs.”

Case 2

A cosmetics retailer required that all sales clerks had to speak English whenever there were customers in its store. The only times the employees were allowed to speak in other languages was when there were no customers present or when the sales clerks were on break or at lunch.

However, employees were encouraged to speak with customers in languages other than English if the customers preferred to do so.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit against the retailer asserting that the policy was, in effect, discriminatory. The New York district court tossed the case out in 2005. It declared that speaking in non-English languages when there are customers present does have a negative impact on helpfulness, accessibility, and approachability. Thus, the English-only policy is justified for business reasons.

Case 3

In a 2014 lawsuit filed by the EEOC, a Wisconsin metal and plastic products manufacturer violated federal law by firing a group of Hmong and Hispanic employees because of their national origins.

The EEOC stated that its investigation revealed that the Hmong and Hispanic employees were fired based on 10-minute observations by the company that marked them down for their English skills, even though English skills were not needed to perform their jobs. All of those fired had previously received satisfactory ratings on their annual performance evaluations while working for the company.

According to EEOC Chicago Regional Attorney John C. Hendrickson:  “When speaking English fluently is not, in fact, required for the safe and effective performance of a job, nor for the successful operation of the employer’s business, requiring employees to be fluent in English usually constitutes employment discrimination on the basis of national origin — and thus violates federal law.”

Be Cautious

Proceed with caution if your company is thinking of instituting an English-only policy on its premises. Before going ahead with language rules, consult with your human resources advisor and employment law attorney. A business that deals with the general public likely has more leeway to impose restraints. Some examples of rare instances when an English-only policy might be acceptable are when:

  • Customers speak English exclusively.
  • A hostile environment is created among the employees by using foreign languages.
  • Foreign languages make it impossible to ensure that safety rules are understood and applied.

Reasons such as “more harmony” or “better company image” generally won’t pass muster with federal regulators. Ask these questions to determine whether your English-only requirement is justified:

  1. Is English language proficiency an essential function of the job?
  2. Do customers require English-only contact?
  3. Will the rule place an undue burden on employees whose first language is not English? Will it cause safety problems?
  4. Is the English-only policy limited in scope? In other words, can employees speak in other languages on breaks and when it doesn’t interfere with customer service?

The use of language in the U.S. leads to a great deal of debate. But to avoid the trouble and expense of litigation, seek professional advice before instituting an English-only policy.