Requiring employees to speak English only in the workplace, or allowing them to speak in their native tongues is an employment law topic that often leaves employers perplexed. As a result, many are widely subjective to discrimination claims based on national origin and a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
According to the EEOC, the following are some situations in which business necessity would justify an English-only rule to be implemented:
a) A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified, the EEOC will presume the rule violates Title VII.
b) An English-only rule that applies only at certain times is acceptable if justified by a business need such as communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
c) An employer who has a justifiable business reason for an English-only rule that’s limited to certain times must notify employees in advance of the type of situations when speaking English is required and of the consequences for violating the rule. If the employer does not notify employees and then makes an adverse employment decision against one of them for failing to speak English, the EEOC “will consider the employer’s application of the rule as evidence of discrimination.”
Take the recent case of the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, on behalf of 18 Hispanic housekeepers who were allegedly harassed due to their national origin and subjected to an English-only rule at work. According to the suit, the UIW employees spoke little or no English, with Spanish as their primary language even though they have lived in the United States for a while, they were not bilingual. The workers explained that they had difficulty complying with the rule because they did not speak English and unconsciously reverted to Spanish during conversation with coworkers. The university was found liable for a $2.44 million settlement.
By Sophia Sanchez, SPHR
Principal Consultant – Develop For Results International
Author of “The Development Alternative: Powerful Strategies for unparalleled Business Results”
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