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Encourage employee language skills the legally safe way

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Nearly half of employers say they make employee diversity a competitive selling point for their organizations, according to a new Novations survey of 1,780 HR execs and senior managers.

Still, it's no secret that a common byproduct of diversity, employee language skills and literacy, continues to pose a big challenge in many organizations.

To combat that problem, some employers now require employees to use or learn languages other than English on the job. Some are even helping employees learn a new language.

That's a tactic more organizations use to boost competitiveness and customer service in increasingly diverse areas. While that can be a smart strategy in many industries, such as retail, restaurants and public agencies, it also carries some legal risk.

Advice: Don't require employees to learn another language unless having bilingual skills really is a requirement of the job, rather than just a skill that would be nice for employees to have.

If you can't pinpoint a rock-solid job-related reason for the language training, make it voluntary, not mandatory, for employees. (To locate literacy programs in your ZIP code, visit America's Literacy Directory at www.literacydirectory.org, or go to the Na-tional Institute for Literacy site at www.nifl.gov.)

English-only rules spur suits

With bilingual workers becoming more of a norm in workplaces, you'll need to increasingly walk a fine line between promoting employee literacy and running the legal risk of ill-advised "English-only" policy, which could violate Title VII national origin discrimination rules.

That law says it's legal to require employees to speak to customers or co-workers in English during the course of their job. But any English-only policy must be justified by "business necessity."

If you don't have a legitimate business reason for preventing an employee from speaking a certain language, don't touch the issue. In most cases, "business necessity" deals with efficiency and safety.

Here are some situations in which business necessity would justify an English-only rule:


  • Communication with customers, co-workers or supervisors who only speak English.



  • In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety.



  • For cooperative work assignments in which one language is needed to promote efficiency.



  • To enable a supervisor who only speaks English to monitor the performance of an employee.




The EEOC says English-only rules that apply to all employees at all times, even when employees are chatting with co-workers in the lunch room, will violate the law.

Case in point: A Colorado casino asked Hispanic housekeepers not to speak Spanish at work, not even with co-workers or Spanish-speaking customers. If speaking Spanish was unavoidable, employees were told to speak it only in the janitors' closet. As a result, 36 of them sued for national-origin bias and divvied up a $1.5 million court settlement.

To avoid such trouble, make sure any language policy is firmly grounded in a business necessity. Be able to link an English policy to a specific job need. For example, employees on an oil rig must all speak English because they need to communicate quickly and respond to emergencies.

Online resource: For more EEOC guidance on English-only policies and accent discrimination, go to www.eeoc .gov/origin.

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