Focused On Business Law

Attorneys Sara Bradley, Marinda Neumann and Lindsay Nakagawa.

Why businesses can’t have an “English only” policy

On Behalf of | Mar 10, 2023 | Employment Law

As an employer, you know that national origin is among the protected classes under federal and California laws. Discrimination based on national origin refers to where an employee was born and where their family – even generations back – is from.

National origin discrimination doesn’t have to be as obvious as a manager denying a person a promotion because they weren’t born in the U.S. One sadly all-too-common example is requiring English to be spoken at all times, even in personal conversations. A “No Spanish” or similar rule is also national origin discrimination when it pertains to non-work-related conversations between employees or when an employee is on a personal phone call.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that this type of policy is “a burdensome term and condition of employment.” It also violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When can you require English to be spoken?

It’s usually necessary for workplaces to have a common language, and that language is typically English. Employers have the right, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, to require employees to speak English when:

  • They’re involved in “cooperative work assignments.”
  • They communicate with employees, customers and others who only or primarily speak English.
  • There’s an emergency or other safety issue.
  • A supervisor needs to assess or monitor an employee’s work.

It’s not uncommon for employees to complain that they feel “left out” if employees are speaking to each other in a language other than English in the lunchroom or hallway. Some people automatically assume they’re being talked about when the conversation likely has nothing to do with them.

Employees have a right to have a personal conversation in their native language or to speak with a parent, grandparent or another family member in that person’s native language on the phone while on a break. Your managers, supervisors and all employees need to be aware of this. That’s why it’s essential to have experienced legal guidance to establish and periodically review and revise company policies and procedures.