English-Only Work Rules May Discriminate – and Violate Labor Law, Too

By Eric B. Meyer

A few years ago, I posed this question: Is a workplace “English-only” rule legal?

Yadda, yadda, yadda, sometimes.

That is, in this Compliance Manual, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirms that employers may adopt English-only rules under certain circumstances, insofar as it is adopted for non-discriminatory reasons (e.g., safety, business necessity) and not to discriminate on the basis of national origin.

An overly broad rule

But would that policy pass muster under the National Labor Relations Act?

Not necessarily, according to this recent Administrative Law Judge opinion, in which a group of hospitals maintained a work rule requiring employees to communicate only in English when conducting business at the hospitals or with each other, and when patients or customers are present or nearby. Employees also had to communicate only in English when communicating between staff and patients, and visitors or customers unless interpretation or translation is requested or required.

The Administrative Law Judge determined that this English-only rule was overly broad, as it could have the effect of discouraging employees from engaging in protected concerted activity:

I conclude that employees would reasonably construe Respondents’ English-only rule to restrict them from engaging in concerted activity….Because Respondents’ English-only rule is vague as to time and location (i.e., must use English in patient and non-patient areas, in patient access areas, and between employees, staff, customers, patients and visitors), it infringes on an employee’s ability to freely discuss and communicate about work conditions, wages and other terms and conditions of employment. As such, I find that Respondents’ language restrictions would prohibit speech that “cut(s) to the very essence of activity which the Act protects because all other actions contemplated by the statutory scheme flow out of employees’ discussions about their wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment….”

There are labor law considerations

Employees have the right to discuss work conditions with one another.

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The National Labor Relations Act applies in many union and non-union workplaces. And, as far as I could tell, the employer in this instance was a NON-union employer.

Therefore, if you are thinking about implementing English-only rules, consider both the employment and labor law implications.

Then call a lawyer.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.


6 Comments on “English-Only Work Rules May Discriminate – and Violate Labor Law, Too

  1. Just as bad that in Texas no one will give you a job if you’re not bi-lingual in Spanish,you come to this country,learn to speak English! I wouldn’t go to France,Germany or any other country without having at least some rudimentery knowlegde of the local language,it’s about having common courtesy,I don’t owe it to some illegal to speak his/her language in my own country…

  2. Meanwhile the idiots speaking Spanish and Tagalog make fun of patients and other workers in their language so no one can understand them except for the few of us that can speak multiple languages. It is BSSSSSSSSS that this is allowed and is completely unprofessional!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Morons in Government. Work rules will have to be written in 100 languages costing American billions of dollars. Heck, Blacks can’t read simple English. What language is that?

  4. So stupid. Can you just imagine, a stack of pallets or racks starting to tip, but when you yell to telll them to move, they just stand there and look at you.

  5. The comments are missing the point. Two people can talk to each other in whatever language they mutually agree to. And get over this paranoia that if you are listening in on a conversation of two people speaking a language you don’t understand, they are talking about you. Didn’t your mother teach you it is a sin to evesdrop?

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