Employers who consider requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace should proceed carefully. Without a clear, legitimate business-related reason for having an English-only rule in your workplace, your rule could be deemed a discriminatory practice.
If you are an employer subject to federal anti-discrimination laws, it's important to realize that English-only rules are presumed to be discriminatory by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The reasoning behind this presumption is that requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace may disadvantage workers on the basis of national origin and can create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation, and intimidation.
However, an English-only rule will be upheld only if the use of English is required by business necessity. This area of the law is unsettled, as some courts have rejected the EEOC's position. To protect yourself, make sure that you have a business necessity for requiring English.
Do not assume that this is an issue that you can ignore if you do not have English-only rules in place. Not having an English-only policy in place can cause trouble as well. For example, in one case an English-speaking worker sued her employer for providing a discriminatory work environment because her coworkers were isolating her by consistently speaking a foreign language she didn't understand.
Chances are, if you have only a few employees, problems necessitating English-only rules will not arise. But if you find yourself considering such a policy because employees are speaking another language at work, ask yourself these questions to see if having the rules would be justified.
- Do you really have a problem? As long as employees are not interfering with the business's efficiency or causing tensions with other employees, is there any harm in allowing certain employees to converse in another language? It may, in fact, be easier for employees to speak in their primary language. It can improve efficiency and may boost morale.
- Do employees need to be able to speak English? Do they need to communicate with customers or other employees at specific times?
- Are the reasons business related? Are the reasons for wanting to have employees speak English business related? There must be a business necessity to require that only English be spoken. Employees can properly be required to speak English while they are performing job duties that involve safety concerns, potentially dangerous substances, and equipment because it is necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the business.
Benjamin owns a deli, and in his deli he has employees working in positions where they do not interact with customers but where they can be observed by customers who come into the deli. Benjamin can't require his employees to speak only English because he is concerned that customers would not like it that his employees were speaking another language in front of them.
The following example does illustrate legitimate business need.
In the same situation, if Benjamin has employees who must interact with customers who speak English only, requiring the employees to speak English when interacting with the customer would be a business necessity.
There are alternatives to having an English-only policy. If you have a problem between specific employees that is causing disruption, you can try restricting the use of the second language during work-related conversations among those specific employees:
- Clarify that the directive is tailored to curtail conflicts among identified employees and is not directed at all employees or all conversations.
- Emphasize that it is not an English-only rule since not all languages are prohibited.
- Treat the problem as a disciplinary situation and follow your discipline policy.
By choosing to implement this kind of strategy, you can have the best of both worlds. Employees can communicate with each other effectively in English to get work done, but employees who speak foreign languages can converse with each other at work about nonwork topics, which can help improve morale.