While requiring workers to be fluent in English or to speak English in the workplace isn’t unlawful, per se, an English-only policy may be seen as a pretext for unlawful national-origin discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
A recent comment by a regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) warns employers against English-only policies. In the agency’s experience, he said, English-only rules and requiring workers to be fluent in English are often used to make “discrimination appear acceptable.” But, he added, “superficial appearances are not fooling anyone.”
The EEOC recently sued a Wisconsin manufacturing company, alleging the employer engaged in national-origin discrimination by firing Asian and Hispanic employees for having poor English skills, based only on ten-minute observations. According to the EEOC, fluent English-language skills were not necessary for the employees to perform their jobs. All the fired employees, in fact, had received satisfactory ratings on their annual performance reviews. The EEOC, which sued after being unable to resolve the matter through a conciliation process, is seeking lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief to stop the discriminatory practices.
Unless an employer can demonstrate that an English-only policy is necessary for the safe and effective performance of workers' jobs and for the successful operation of the business, the policy will likely be viewed as workplace discrimination. For employers in which an English-only rule may be a business necessity, they should narrowly tailor such rules to achieve specific goals that could not be achieved otherwise. Here are some guidelines:
Specify when employees are required to communicate in English.
Don't single out a particular language for prohibition.
Clearly state that employees may speak their native language when not performing a duty requiring English.
Provide notice of the rule. If an employee can speak but not read English, translate the rule and have the employee sign an acknowledgment that he/she received the notice.
Dealing effectively with people from diverse cultures is essential to avoid legal sanctions and to ensure that organizations can reach their full potential in today's multicultural world.