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English Only In The Workplace?

We are a retirement and assisted living community in Washington state. Due to the necessity of being able to communicate with residents and staff during an emergency, we have a policy that all staff must be able to speak, read, write and communicate in English during work hours. We have a diverse staff who speak many languages (Tagalog, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic, for example) and English is the common language.

If we hold this standard for all employees, is it a legal requirement?

In most circumstances, employees have the right to communicate in languages other than English. The EEOC (Employment Opportunity Commission) states that a rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment.

An English-only rule that is applied only at certain times may be utilized under limited circumstances that are justified by “business necessity”. The EEOC states if an employer needs an English-only rule to ensure safe and efficient business operations, such a rule may be justified. Situations in which business necessity would justify an English-only rule include:

  • For communications with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English.
  • In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety.
  • For cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
  • To enable a supervisor who only speaks English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with coworkers or customers.

If an employer with a business necessity adopts an English-only rule to be applied at certain times, the employer must inform its employees of the general circumstances when speaking only in English is required and of the consequences of violating the rule.

As with all workplace policies, an English-only rule must be adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons only.
For example, an English-only rule would be unlawful if it were adopted with the intent to discriminate on the basis of national origin. Likewise, a policy prohibiting some, but not all, of the foreign languages spoken in a workplace, such as a no-Spanish rule, would be unlawful.

The employer must weigh business justifications for the English-only rule against possible discriminatory effects of the rule. While there is no specific test for making this evaluation, relevant considerations include:

  • Do you have evidence of safety justifications for the rule?
  • Do you have evidence of other business justifications for the rule, such as the necessity for English being spoken during supervision or during communication with customers?
  • Is the rule an absolute requirement in carrying out objectives?

In conclusion, to implement an English-only policy you must be able to justify your business need for such a policy. Could you stand in front of a judge and defend your policy with fact based evidence that your English-only policy is a true business necessity?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 29th, 2013 at 6:48 pm and is filed under
Human Resources Management.
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