“English-Only” Rules Can Be a Legal Minefield for Employers

It happens often in the customer service industry.  Two of your employees speak English as a second language, while most of your customers do not speak or understand a language other than English.  Two of your employees begin conversing in their native language in an area where customers can hear them.  You eye your customers nervously.  Are they offended?  Uncomfortable?  Do they think your employees are saying negative things about them?  Maybe your customers would feel more welcome if you prohibited your employees from speaking languages other than English in the workplace.  You decide to draft an “English-Only” policy so that none of your employees or customers who do not speak or understand a language other than English feel suspicious or nervous when employees are having conversations nearby that they cannot understand.

Not so fast, says the Department of Labor and the EEOC.  “English-Only” policies violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and are considered to be illegal discrimination on the basis of national origin.  Prohibiting employees from speaking a language other than English in the workplace or taking adverse employment action against employees who use a language other than English (regardless of whether it is in the presence of coworkers, customers, clients, vendors, contractors, or others who do not speak that language) is against the law.

There are rare circumstances in which an employer may require an employee to communicate in English.  The requirement to communicate in English must be a business necessity, and the rule must be narrowly tailored to address that necessity.  

Employees may be required to speak English in an emergency situation to promote safety, or when interacting with coworkers, customers, or supervisors who speak only English.  The employer must show that requiring employees to communicate with these individuals in English is necessary for the business to function.  And note: these exceptions allow employers to direct employees to use English to communicate in very specific circumstances-but they never allow the employer to prohibit the use of a language other than English in the workplace.

Employees must be able to communicate with each other to keep the workplace safe and functioning.  But this should not come with the cost of restricting an employee from using their preferred language in the workplace.  A message to an employee that their language is not welcome tells the employee that their national origin is not welcome-a message that violates federal law and will come at great financial and reputational cost to the employer.