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Insist on fluent English only if job requires it

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Office Communication,Workplace Communication

It's clear that you can require bank tellers and phone salespeople to speak fluent English. But can you make the same demand of a construction worker or dishwasher?

In many cases, it makes good business sense to require employees to communicate effectively in clearly spoken English. But the EEOC is warning that overly broad policies will violate federal national-origin discrimination law.

So when can you set an English-fluency policy? That depends on the nature of the job. The EEOC says such policies are allowed in positions only if fluent English is needed "for the effective performance of the position for which it is imposed."

Bottom line: Avoid setting identical fluency requirements for a broad range of positions. And don't require a greater degree of fluency than necessary for that job. You'll stand on safer legal ground if you can document objective business reasons, such as safety, effective supervision or communication with customers.

Recent case: Jesus Romero, a Spanish-speaking dishwasher at a hotel restaurant, was laid off while the hotel remodeled the restaurant. The hotel told him that he'd be rehired. But when the restaurant reopened, the hotel denied Romero his old job because of a newly implemented English-fluency policy.

He filed a complaint with the EEOC, which sued the restaurant on his behalf for national-origin discrimination. The hotel has suspended its fluency policy pending the case's resolution.

Online resource: For more EEOC guidance on English-only policies, English-fluency policies and accent discrimination, go to

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