Compliance and Safety

Is It Legal to Have an English-Only Language Policy in the Workplace?

Language policy at work - translation keyboard

Does your company have an English-only language policy, and if so, how are you ensuring it doesn’t create language discrimination?

The law does not prohibit enforcing an English-only language policy at work, but the EEOC does have specific requirements that must be in place to keep that enforcement legal. There’s a fine line between legal and discriminatory here, so businesses must understand how their language policies can translate in court.

“A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times on the job can violate the law, if it has been adopted for a discriminatory reason, or if it is not uniformly enforced, or if it is not necessary for conducting business.”

There must be a justifiable business necessity behind any English-only language policy. The most common reason for having a language policy is safety – to ensure everyone can effectively communicate in an unsafe or emergency situation.

Having a blanket English-only rule, like saying workers can never speak any other language anywhere at work, is likely to get a business in trouble with the EEOC should a discriminatory issue arise. These policies can foster a hostile environment towards minorities, and if it leads to harassment, the employer could lose in court without a business necessity that’s crystal clear.

What defines a “business necessity?”

Here are the EEOC’s guidelines on having an English-only policy at work:

  • A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified.
  • An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently.
  • Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include: communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
  • Even if there is a need for an English-only rule, an employer may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule and the consequences of violating it.

Some states have stricter rules than others when it comes to an English-only language policy, so it’s important to comply not only with the EEOC, but also with individual states. Here’s how California defines a business necessity:

“Business necessity is defined as ‘an overriding legitimate business purpose such that the language restriction is necessary to the safe and efficient operation of the business, that the language restriction effectively fulfills the business purpose it is supposed to serve, and there is no alternative practice to the language restriction that would accomplish the business purpose equally well with a lesser discriminatory impact.”

Are employees informed?

On top of the business necessity for an English-only language policy, the EEOC also requires that employees be informed about the general circumstances of when the policy is in effect, and what the consequences are for breaking it.

Neglecting to make all employees aware of the language policy and making an adverse employment decision based on an employee’s national origin can land a business in deep water with the courts.

Discrimination lawsuits don’t come cheap – the EEOC has had several large successes in the past, such as a 2001 settlement for $2.44 million involving 18 Hispanic housekeepers who were required to speak English at all times.

Employers should carefully consider how an English-only language policy would affect their workplace, and whether or not the benefits of implementing such a policy would outweigh the potential discriminatory issues it could create. Those that already have one can ensure that they’re staying on the right side of the fine line by keeping all supervisors and employees informed of why the policy is in place and how it should be handled.

Informed Workplace, with Lisa Yankowitz, provides many micro video lessons through The BizLibrary Collection that keep Human Resources professionals trained and up-to-date on HR laws and compliance issues like discrimination in the workplace.

Enjoy a 1-minute preview of “Can You Require Employees To Speak English?” here:

Gain access to more HR compliance videos on topics including anti-harassment, discrimination, and HR law when you demo BizLibrary’s online training library!

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Krista researches, analyzes, and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. She looks at the industry shifts and trends that matter to L&D and HR professionals, and helps them understand how to create better training programs that grow their employees and their business.