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Can I use English Only Policy in the Workplace?

Posted on September 8, 2016

Be Careful When Creating an English Only Policy in the Workplace

Many employers believe that only English should be spoken in the workplace. Employers cite complaints from other employees about co-workers who might feel uncomfortable or excluded when coworkers speak other languages.

Other times the reasons are more practical, instructions need to be given to employees, signs and other safety instructions may only be in English, raising concerns about the safe and efficient operations of the business.

Both federal and California anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination in national origin. Therefore, companies cannot prohibit other languages without a true business need to do so.

According the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there are ways to implement nondiscriminatory English-only rules that apply to specific circumstances in the workplace. These conditions relate to safety and the efficient operation of the organization. For safety reasons, it is permitted to require that English be used during emergencies or when performing job duties in areas where there may be fire or a potential for explosions. Casual conversations between employees when they are not performing job duties cannot be limited to English.

English can be required in the following circumstances:

  • Dangerous conditions. If the job site is one that involves a high risk of physical injury or death, an English-only policy might be necessary to ensure the highest level of safety. Risky job sites and situations could include: construction sites, emergency medical operating rooms, critical laboratory services, and other employment that involves serious risk or injury.
  • Ensuring proper supervision. Where supervisors who only speak English need to be able to monitor all employee communications to ensure work is being efficiently carried out and only appropriate discussions are taking place.
  • Business requires it. Where English needs to be spoken to communicate with customers, coworkers, or supervisors that only speak English, an English-only policy may be appropriate.

Employers must remember that when employees are not working under such circumstances and during breaks, English-only is not a necessity.

To help diffuse situations between co-workers who may feel uncomfortable when they hear foreign languages being spoken, we recommend implementing diversity training to encourage respect for those who speak more than one language and to help create an awareness that people may speak another language to relax or feel closer to their heritage. Employers should ensure that all managers are fully aware of and support the employer’s policies on language use and ensure that no discrimination takes place within their departments.

Employers should also be mindful that discriminating against a worker for their accent is also considered a potential form of discrimination. It is against the law to deny an individual a job, or discriminate against that person solely on the basis of their accent without a legitimate business reason.

Employers must be diligent to ensure that they do not institute either formally or informally a blanket English-only rule at work because it can be burdensome and potentially discriminates against employees. Remember that California and federal law recognize that English-only policies in the workplace are a potential form of national origin discrimination and can create a hostile work environment.

Lauren Sims is the author and a principal HR Consultant with eqHR Solutions.

Whenever you require HR or Payroll advice or help navigating the ever-changing landscape of California and Federal Employment Laws and Regulations, call us for a no obligation consultation.

eqHR Solutions is a leading human resources and payroll consulting firm, providing tactical and strategic human resources employment support and ADP payroll product training. Services are provided for all size businesses in Southern California and the San Francisco / Bay area.