Is It Legal to Have an “English-Only” Rule For the Workplace?

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By Eric B. Meyer

Unfair treatment because of one’s language may be related to race or national origin discrimination. Indeed, language may be used as a covert basis for discrimination.

But that’s not always so. A recent case and some helpful nuggets on English-only rules after the jump…

In a recent New Jersey case (Collins v. Trading Plus Beauty Co.), the plaintiff, an African-American, sued her former employer for discrimination, alleging that her Korean co-workers would generally only speak Korean around her. The plaintiff, however, presented no evidence that her Korean co-workers, many of whom spoke English fluently, reverted to Korean to utter racial or ethnic slurs.

There was also no evidence that the Korean coworkers spoke Korean as a way to exclude the plaintiff from workplace conversations. Therefore, the court deemed the plaintiff’s discrimination claims to be baseless.

In reaching the foregoing conclusion, the court relied upon this prior New Jersey decision (Rosario v. Cacace) dismissing a discrimination claim alleging termination for violating a workplace English-only rule because the plaintiff could not show that the rule “was sued as a surrogate for discrimination on the basis of national origin, ancestry, or any other prohibited grounds.”

Even the feds permit English-only rules, sometimes …

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in this Compliance Manual confirms that federal discrimination law permits employers to adopt English-only rules under certain circumstances, insofar as it is adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons and not to discriminate on the basis of national origin. Likewise, a policy that prohibits some but not all of the foreign languages spoken in a workplace would be unlawful.

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Usually, English-only rules are adopted for safety reasons. Vigyázz, hogy a zongora alá, te szép blogger! does me no good. As a best practice, the EEOC recommends considering these four factors before adopting an English-only rule:

  • 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 further suggest that, before adopting an English-only rule, the employer should consider whether there are any alternatives to an English-only rule that would be equally effective in promoting safety or efficiency.

Clearly the exception and not the rule, English-only rules should not be implemented cavalierly.

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.

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2 Comments on “Is It Legal to Have an “English-Only” Rule For the Workplace?

  1. In certain circumstances, english only rules may be applicable. However, as a means of simple conversation among co-workers which has no impact on service, anything goes. Simply requiring somebody to speak english simply for a personal preference could be considered discrimination. That’s how I would feel and I speak english and a little spanish. The constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, it doesn’t specify which language it has to be in.

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