Approach workplace "English-only" policies cautiously 
Issue: You are the manager of a large department store. During operating hours, Hispanic employees tend to talk to each other in Spanish, although they are also fluent in English. You find this offensive, and you think customers find this offensive too. You’d like to establish an “English-only policy” that would apply during business hours when customers are in the store. Can you adopt such a policy?
Answer:     As more bilingual employees enter the workforce, employers are facing increased resistance to “English-only” policies (personnel rules that prohibit the speaking of foreign languages in the workplace).

EEOC guidelines. The EEOC's position on English-only policies is set forth in its “Guidelines on Discrimination Because of National Origin” at 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7. Under the Guidelines, if an employer adopts a rule requiring employees to speak only English “at all times” in the workplace, the EEOC “will presume that such a rule violates Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits national origin discrimination], and will closely scrutinize it.” If an employer has a rule requiring that employees speak English “only at certain times,” the EEOC will consider the rule permissible only if it can meet the stringent standard of “business necessity.” 

Under the best-case scenario, an English-only policy subjects an employer to potential litigation. For example, even in jurisdictions where narrowly tailored English-only policies have been held lawful, such as in Florida, the EEOC routinely accepts charges challenging such policies.

Policy guidance. Employers deciding to adopt an English-only policy should be certain the policy contains several safeguards:
  • First, the policy should be narrowly tailored to its legitimate business purposes. For example, there will rarely be any business justification for prohibiting employees from speaking a foreign language during breaks, meals and other non-working times. 
  • Second, the policy should be nondiscriminatory. It should apply to all employees equally and not only to one ethnic group or one foreign language. 
  • Third, the specific policy and the potential consequences for violating the policy should be communicated clearly to the employees in writing, and employees should acknowledge their receipt of the policy with their signature.

Note that English-only policies should not be applied to employees who do not speak English, or to employees whose jobs do not require that they speak English. Applying an English-only policy to such employees would almost certainly be ruled unlawful for lack of a legitimate business purpose.

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