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Can we require ‘English-only’ at work? Foreign-language chatter is affecting morale

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Q. Some of our employees speak to each other in their native language. We are worried that some workers will feel excluded. To boost employee morale, we would like to institute a policy prohibiting our workers from speaking any language other than English during the workday. Is such a policy legal?

A. Probably not. California law expressly prohibits “English-only” policies except in very rare circumstances in which such a rule would be necessary.

Section 12951 of the California Government Code makes it an unlawful employment practice “to adopt or enforce a policy that limits or prohibits the use of any language in any workplace, unless both of the following conditions exist:

  1. The language restriction is justified by a business necessity.
  2. The employer has notified its employees of the circumstances and the time when the language restriction is required to be observed and of the consequences for violating the language restriction.”

The law defines “business necessity” as “an overriding legitimate business purpose such that the language restriction is necessary to the safe and efficient operation of the business, that the language restriction effectively fulfills the business purpose it is supposed to serve, and there is no alternative practice to the language restriction that would accomplish the business purpose equally well with a lesser discriminatory impact.”

While federal law does not expressly prohibit an employer from adopting an English-only policy, employers with such policies risk liability under discrimination laws. Courts have held that such rules result in discrimination against workers based on their national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1980, the EEOC issued regulations addressing the status of English-only policies under Title VII. The EEOC stated that workplace rules requiring employees to speak English at all times are to be closely scrutinized and are presumed to violate Title VII.

However, the EEOC also noted that English-only policies may be permissible if there is a “business necessity” requiring such a policy.

The EEOC’s Compliance Manual offers some examples of situations in which an English-only rule could be justified by business necessity:

  • For communications with customers, co-workers, or supervisors who speak only English
  • In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety
  • For cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency
  • To enable a supervisor who speaks only English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with co-workers or ­customers.

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