A New York state restaurant owner will pay $50,000 to resolve charges he discriminated against Spanish-speaking employees. In addition to subjecting workers at Antonella’s Restaurant & Pizzeria to ethnic slurs and harassment, he required them to speak only English at work.
Most “English-only” policies violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
They are not strictly unlawful, but courts and the EEOC have regularly ruled that employers must be able to demonstrate a legitimate business reason for having such a policy. For example, an English-only rule might be justified when employees must engage in highly technical communications or when they work with such hazardous materials that safety requires using a common language.
However, pizza-making is not brain surgery and pizza ovens aren’t nuclear reactors.
If you are considering an English-only policy, be prepared to spell out exactly why it is necessary. If employees complain about the policy, you will want to have a written copy available to detail the rationale. If push comes to shove, the EEOC will want to see it too.
In most cases, though, a language policy is not necessary.
Employees need enough English fluency to communicate with English-only speakers (such as their supervisors) about work-related topics. Otherwise, there is rarely a good reason to forbid employees from conversing in their native language.
This case reveals an all-too-common scenario in which an English-only policy is not about workplace efficiency, but probably about bias instead. Even if the employer does not consider a language policy discriminatory, employees probably do.
That is the EEOC’s default position as well—and any evidence of name-calling, harassment, unequal pay or benefits will be viewed through that lens.
Advice: If you have an English-only policy, you better have a written justification for it. Have your attorney sign off on it. Otherwise, scrap it.