Can you require your employees to speak only English in the Workplace? Between 1990 and 2000, census data show that the portion of Americans with a primary language other than English rose from 14 to 20 percent of the population. Thus, chances are, as an employer, you have employees whose primary language is other than English. Naturally, sensitivities may arise in the workplace. Shared language is often essential to collaboration and customer service. Indeed, the inability to speak the same language may impair performance or safety.
Thus, it may be very tempting to create an "English Only" policy at your company. Although employers are barred from discrimination on the basis of national origin, "English Only" workplaces are not strictly illegal according to the Equal Opportunity Commission—EEOC.
However, bear in mind that the EEOC is suspicious if an employer establishes an across-the-board "English Only" policy, without a valid business reason. Increasingly, these rules are successfully challenged in the courts. For example, The EEOC sued on behalf of 6 hairstylists working at a hair salon franchise. The hairstylists won $360,000 because they were forbidden to speak Spanish, even with Spanish customers.
Therefore, if you are contemplating creating an "English Only" policy, it is important that you become familiar with the EEOC's Rules to ensure that such a policy does not constitute prohibited discrimination.
Title VII permits employers to adopt "English Only" rules under certain circumstances. An "English Only" rule can only be adopted for a "business necessity." Such a rule would be unlawful if it were adopted with the intent to discriminate on the basis of national origin or merely because the person had an accent. Additionally, a policy that prohibits some but not all of the foreign languages spoken in a workplace, such as a no-Chinese rule, would be unlawful.
An "English Only" rule is justified by "business necessity" if it is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently. For example, an employer may be justified in requiring its workers to speak English in order to communicate with coworkers or supervisors who only speak English. Additionally, an employer may be justified in requiring that all employees speak English in an emergency situation or for cooperative work assignments.
Therefore, even though your employees chatting with each other in a foreign language during their work breaks can feel disruptive, uncomfortable and exclusionary; you may not be justified in establishing an "English Only" rule.
In evaluating whether to adopt an "English Only" rule, an employer should weigh the business justifications for the rule against possible discriminatory effects of the rule. While there is no precise test for making this evaluation, the EEOC recommends considering the following:
- Evidence of safety justifications for the rule
- Evidence of other business justifications for the rule, such as supervision or effective communication with customers
- Likely effectiveness of the rule in carrying out objectives; and
- English proficiency of workers affected by the rule
The EEOC also recommends that an employer consider any alternatives to an "English Only" rule that would be equally effective in promoting safety or efficiency.