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Why an “English only” or similar workplace policy is illegal

On Behalf of | Mar 4, 2023 | Employment Law

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Even in areas like South Florida, where people of multiple nationalities and backgrounds have lived and worked together for centuries, discrimination against employees based on their national origin (or that of their families who came here generations ago) still exists. Employment discrimination based on national origin is illegal under both federal and state law, but these prohibitions haven’t fully eliminated such practices.

Employees often don’t realize that what they’re experiencing is national origin discrimination. Certainly, not being hired or being denied promotions or even fired because of a manager who has prejudices against your ethnicity is illegal. So are workplace policies that are aimed only at certain employees. For example, an all-too-common manifestation of conscious or subconscious bias is an “English only” policy.

When can an employer require employees to speak English?

In most workplaces, employees need to communicate in English, both verbally and in writing to do their jobs (and for others to do theirs). According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers can require workers to speak English in the following situations:

  • When they’re involved in “cooperative work assignments
  • In safety-related matters and emergencies
  • When communicating with people who only speak English
  • When their performance is being reviewed or monitored

As such, English-only policies can only be enacted under highly-specific circumstances.

A “burdensome” employment condition

Employees who are fluent in another language are often called over to communicate with customers, vendors and others who don’t speak English. However, if a co-worker hears them speaking to someone else on their break in another language, they may think nothing of saying, “Speak English.”

It’s crucial for employers to know that that kind of behavior, even if seemingly done in jest, is not allowed. Sadly, while most employers realize it’s illegal to have a written “English only” or “No Spanish (or other language)” policy, some have an unwritten policy of this nature. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) calls such a policy a “burdensome” employment condition that’s “presumed to violate Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act.

An employer that condones an “English only” policy – whether it is written or unwritten – is probably more likely to engage in other behavior that’s discriminatory and that can affect a person’s ability to progress in their career or even keep their job. You have a right to speak up and respectfully assert your rights. If you haven’t been able to resolve an issue like this one with your employer and it’s affecting your ability to do your job or you’ve faced retaliation, it may be wise to seek legal guidance.