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When can an employer mandate an “English Only” policy?

Jan 26, 2022 | Employment litigation

As California business owners know (or should know), national origin is a protected employment class under federal as well as state law. In part, this means that you can’t discriminate against someone in hiring, promotion, firing or by harassing them because they’re from another country or perhaps their parents or grandparents came here from another country.

However, the law extends to other forms of discrimination, such as requiring employees to speak only English at all times – even if they’re engaged in a personal conversation in the lunchroom or hallway with a co-worker.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that an employer policy that requires employees to speak only English at all times while in the workplace is “a burdensome term and condition of employment….[and] presumed to violate Title VII.” Note that you can’t substitute a “No Spanish” (or another foreign language) policy for an English-only one.

When can businesses require employees to communicate in English?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers may implement policies where English is required to be spoken in specified circumstances, such as:

  • When communicating with employees and customers who only speak English
  • In emergencies or safety-related situations where everyone needs to communicate in the same language
  • In “cooperative work assignments”
  • When speaking English is necessary for a supervisor to monitor or assess an employee’s work

These are all valid, non-discriminatory reasons related to either a business need or a safety issue that would require employees to communicate only in English.

Here in Southern California, most businesses have employees and customers whose first language isn’t English or who are fluent in more than one language. Generally, businesses benefit from such diversity. Employers often make use of their employees’ ability to communicate in other languages to assist customers who may speak little or no English. It’s hardly fair to expect them to speak in their native language when it meets a business need but not when they simply want to have a private conversation with a colleague or even talk on the phone to a relative during a break or lunch hour.

If you have questions about your business’s ability to manage a multilingual workforce without running afoul of the law or if you’re facing charges of discrimination, it’s wise to seek legal advice as soon as possible.