Why a blanket workplace “English only” policy is discriminatory

New York City is home to people who speak just about every recognized language in the world. However, in most workplaces, people are required to speak English (even if it’s their second or third language) to do their job.

That doesn’t mean, however, that employers can prohibit people from speaking another language in the workplace in personal interactions. To prohibit this would be an example of discrimination based on national origin, which is one of the protected classes under state and federal law.

Unfortunately, some employers don’t know the law or choose not to abide by it. They may even post “English Only” signs throughout the workplace. They may even allow employees to chastise co-workers when they hear them speaking another language – even if they’re speaking to someone else. Sadly, some people do this only because they feel left out or believe that co-workers are talking about them when they’re just talking to a parent or grandparent on the phone.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an “English Only” policy violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC also calls such a policy “a burdensome term and condition of employment.” The same applies to a “No Spanish” policy or one forbidding employees from ever speaking a particular language in the workplace.

When can employers require the use of English?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers can require their employees to use English in the following situations:

  • When they’re working on “cooperative work assignments.”
  • When they’re talking or otherwise communicating with someone who only speaks English.
  • When there’s an emergency or other safety-related event.
  • When it’s necessary for a supervisor to monitor their work.

Having a diverse workplace is generally beneficial, and that means having employees from different backgrounds. Employees who are fluent in another language besides English are valuable when dealing with customers, vendors and others who speak little or no English.

Those who are penalized for speaking a non-English language in a personal conversation with a co-worker, on a phone call or in a situation other than those described above should know the law and their rights.

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