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English-Only Rule Is Legal in Rare Circumstances

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Q. Is it legal for our company to require employees to speak only English at work? —B.K., Idaho

A. Although no laws currently ban English-only workplace rules, such requirements can be challenged under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin. Any English-only policy has to be justified by “business necessity,” which almost always revolves around safety and efficiency.

For example, an English-only rule would probably be OK in a case where all workers on an oil rig are required to speak English because they need to communicate quickly and respond to emergencies. But such a rule would likely violate Title VII if a retailer requires workers to speak only English during working hours because customers objected to employees speaking Spanish among themselves.

One more word of caution: The EEOC considers English-only rules that are applied at all times (including lunch hours and breaks) a violation of Title VII.

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