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Base English-only rules on business necessity

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Unless you have a good business reason, steer clear of preventing workers from talking to each other in their native language.

In September, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) won its largest award for a lawsuit involving English-only policies. A Texas long-distance operator service was ordered to pay 13 Hispanic workers more than $700,000. Although the company had hired them for their bilingual abilities, it barred them from speaking Spanish in the workplace except to customers. (EEOC v. Premier Operator Services, No. 98-CV-198, N.D. Texas, 2000)

In another recent case, eight Hispanic employees of a manufacturing plant were fired for refusing to speak only English on the job. One worker was canned after greeting a co-worker with "buenos dias." The EEOC sued on the workers' behalf, and the company settled. The damage: $192,000 spread out among the eight workers.

Advice: Avoid blanket English-only policies, they can lead to charges of national origin discrimination. Base any requirement to speak only English on business necessity.

EEOC's general counsel says language issues, which include restrictive policies and accent discrimination, are a priority for enforcement.

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