Can you require employees to speak English around customers? — Business Management Daily: Free Reports on Human Resources, Employment Law, Office Management, Office Communication, Office Technology and Small Business Tax Business Management Daily

Can you require employees to speak English around customers?

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A narrowly tailored English-only policy that is designed to serve legitimate business needs is not discriminatory, says the EEOC. To be valid, the policy should spell out when English is required and let employees converse in any other language at all other times.

The EEOC has issued compliance guidelines that require employers to justify when English must be spoken at the exclusion of any other language. Essentially, English-only policies must be limited in scope and based on clear "business necessity." (See box below for tips on setting up a legal policy.)

Recent case: Cosmetic retailer Sephora USA's extensive written policy said that sales clerks had to speak English whenever customers were in the store. Clerks could speak any language if no customers were present, or if the clerks were in a break room. One exception: Employees were encouraged to speak with customers in other languages if the customers wished to do so.

The EEOC filed suit, saying Sephora's policy smacked of national-origin discrimination. But a court tossed out the case, saying: "When salespeople speak in a language customers do not understand, the effects on helpfulness, politeness and approachability are real ... and promoting politeness to customers is a valid business necessity."

The court agreed that customer preference for English isn't the same as customer preferences for white clerks or slender female stewardesses: preferences that are grounded in prejudice. (EEOC v. Sephora USA, No. 03-Civ-8821, SD NY 2005)

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