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Employment Blog

English-Only Policies Under Scrutiny

Authored by Dean R. Dietrich
Posted on September 3, 2014
Filed under Employment

Some companies have adopted an English-only policy which requires that employees use English as the only language allowed in the workplace. This type of policy is often adopted for safety reasons to ensure that everyone understands what is being said in an emergency situation. Unfortunately, the adoption of an English-only policy can create liability for a company.

A recent statement by a regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) actually warns employers against adopting English-only policies. The suggestion is that requiring employees to be fluent in English and requiring only the English language be used in the workplace can be the basis for a claim of discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC recently sued a Wisconsin manufacturing company alleging the company engaged in national-origin discrimination by firing employees with poor English language skills. The EEOC is arguing that the English-only requirement is not necessary for employees to perform their duties and seeks reinstatement, lost wages and compensatory damages for deciding to terminate these employees.

The argument is that the English-only requirement is a subtle way of discriminating against non-English-speaking employees and therefore discriminating on the basis of national origin. It is difficult for a company to argue that English-only is an absolute requirement for employment because certainly safety considerations can be addressed with training of employees regarding the use of certain language in an emergency.

Companies should be very careful if they are contemplating the adoption of an English-only work policy. These types of policies will attract attention from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If you really feel that English-only policies are necessary, they should be narrowly tailored to achieve the specific goals that you feel are necessary. The policy should specify when employees are required to communicate in English and clearly allow employees to use their native tongue when not performing that duty which required the English language. Companies should also publish the notice in English and other languages and make sure the policy is communicated to all employees before enforcing it.