Can an Employer Force English Use?

Can an Employer Force English Use?

Can an employer force employees to use English at work? As more non-English-speaking employees enter the workforce, what problems do employers face with non-English speakers?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says an English-only rule may violate civil-rights laws unless the employer can show the rule is necessary for conducting business. The EEOC recommends if the employer has a business necessity requiring at certain times, employees speak only English (such as when serving customers or dealing with the public), the employer should provide written notice spelling out the exact circumstances and times when English is required.

EEOC guidelines and court decisions have done little to clarify what constitutes “necessity.” For example, in one case, a Puerto Rican warehouse employee was fired after his supervisor overheard him talking in Spanish about a pizza he’d ordered for lunch. His complaint to the EEOC forced the company to abandon its English-only policy. In another case, a federal judge sided with an English-language radio station, which told one of its disc jockeys to stop his occasional use of Spanish on the air because words were the company’s product, and it had a right to control those words.

Safety, Among Other Issues

Many employers say they need English-only policies to preserve safety, productivity and harmony among employees. In numerous restaurants, immigrants have no concept of health department regulations, can’t read printed orders posted in the kitchen, and can’t understand co-workers and management. This leads to unnecessary mishaps involving hot equipment, slicing machines and knives.

Safety problems are not limited to restaurants. Imagine an X-ray technician does not speak fluent English. The patient has to stay still during X-rays, but because some patients cannot understand the technician’s English, they would occasionally step away instead of standing still and would have to be exposed again to more radiation.

Language deficiencies can cause erroneous messages, general miscommunication and can lead to conflict in the workplace.

What’s Legal?

Here’s the rule: As an employer, you must show a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the denial of employment because of an individual’s accent or manner of speaking. Any investigations by the EEOC would focus on the qualifications of the person and whether his or her accent or manner of speaking had a detrimental effect on job performance. Requiring employees or applicants to be fluent in English may violate Title VII if the rule is adopted to exclude individuals of a particular national origin and is not related to job performance.

Another rule: You can legally inquire about an applicant’s English language ability if the position you are filling requires the applicant to be able to speak fluent English. For example, a telemarketing firm which sells English-only programs and/or printed materials can legally require potential employees to “speak the English language using good grammar and enunciation” because there is definitely a demonstrated need for the applicant to speak English. On the other hand, if you are a manufacturer who employs someone who can give instructions and direction in more than one language, you cannot discriminate against anyone who speaks this same language if the person is physically able to perform required tasks.

Some employers are hiring supervisors and job instructors who can give directions and safety instructions in the language(s) of the majority of their employees. Others offer classes in English as a second language, at the work site or through local schools and community colleges. Try asking employees how your organization can overcome a language problem.

Bottom line. If you have an English-only rule, make sure it serves a specific business purpose. The EEOC has said it will closely examine employer-imposed English-only rules which apply at all times and that it will likely find discrimination.

Legal Disclaimer: Payroll Partners and/or the HR Support Center are not engaged in the practice of law. The content in this post should not be construed as legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions concerning your situation or the information you have obtained, you should consult with a licensed attorney. Payroll Partners and/or the HR Support Center cannot be held legally accountable for actions related to this article.