Issue: Requiring employees to speak English can be legally risky.
Risk: Overly broad or misguided policies can trigger a national-origin discrimination complaint to the EEOC.
Action: Never require workers to speak English all the time at work, and scrutinize any other language policies.
If your organization requires employees to speak English at all times (even lunch hours and breaks), drop that policy now. Such broad English-only rules violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
And even if your policy requires employees to speak English only during work hours or in front of customers, make sure that it's justified by a "business necessity," which almost always must revolve around safety or efficiency. If you can't point to a business necessity, drop the policy.
Don't think the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) won't notice. Last year, it received 228 national-origin charges based on English-only rules. That's up from 151 charges in 2001 and only 73 in 1997.
Latest example: As part of an EEOC settlement, Colorado Central Station Casino Inc. must pay $1.5 million to a group of Hispanic housekeepers. The casino must also provide anti-bias training and drop its broad English-only policy.
The casino's HR director instructed supervisors to tell housekeepers that English was the casino's official language and that they could no longer speak Spanish at work. If managers caught employees speaking Spanish, they'd shout "English, English, English."
Bottom line: An English-only rule would probably be legal on, say, an oil rig where workers must communicate quickly and respond to emergencies. But it would likely be illegal if a retailer requires English because customers objected to hearing employees speak Spanish among themselves.