English-only policies are illegal

coffee workerAccording to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces many federal anti-discrimination laws that cover the workplace, about 17.6% of the population spoke a language other than English as of 2000.

Due to the rise of diversity, many employers started implementing English-only workplace policies to stop their employees from talking in languages other than English. Sometimes the policies required employees to speak English at all times on the job, or they required them to speak English while performing specific tasks.

These policies are controversial and may be motivated by xenophobia. In general, they discriminate against employees who have foreign backgrounds who may not be comfortable speaking in English at all times. Title VII doesn’t explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of native language. However, the EEOC does take the position that English-only policies tend to discriminate against workers on the basis of their national origin, which is a Title VII violation.

The EEOC put forward 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7, which states that an individual’s primary language is often an essential characteristic of their national origin. However, it recognizes a difference between English-only policies that stop employees from speaking their native language all the time and policies that require employees to speak in English at certain times. The former is presumed to violate Title VII, while the latter is considered acceptable as long as there is a business necessity for the policy.

A business necessity is a condition needed to operate efficiently or safely. For example, it may be fine for a business to require use of the English language only when communicating with others who only speak English, in an emergency situation, for cooperative work assignments, or to allow a supervisor who only speaks English to monitor job performance in connection with how well the speaker works with customers or his coworkers.

The EEOC has also instructed employers to inform their workers about the circumstances in which it is required that they speak in English and what the consequences are for a rule violation. When employers don’t tell their employees about the limited terms of the English-only policy and then make an adverse employment decision based on the employee’s rule violation, the EEOC considers this evidence of discrimination on the basis of national origin.

For example, if an employee on a farm covered by Title VII is required to speak in English when operating a piece of heavy machinery and isn’t advised of this rule, and then he is immediately fired because he broke it, he may have grounds to file a Title VII lawsuit on the basis of national origin discrimination, even though there were some safety considerations behind the rule.

While the EEOC takes the position that English-only policies are presumptively discriminatory with regard to national origin, some federal courts do not use this interpretation when deciding Title VII lawsuits that are brought on the basis of English-only workplace policies.

The EEOC interpretation has not yet been brought before the Supreme Court or widely accepted by lower courts, so it is crucial to retain an experienced litigator if you believe you suffered from discrimination based on an English-only policy at your workplace.

It can be important to obtain representation from an experienced employment lawyer when you have a dispute with your employer regarding discrimination or other matters. Contact us at (214) 528-6500 or via our online intake form.

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