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Can You Enforce English Only Policies at Work?


Most employers know that discriminating on the basis of national origin is illegal, and would never do such a thing. But many employers also will very willingly impose “English only” policies in the workplace.

What they may not know is that by doing so, they may be unknowingly discriminating on the basis of national origin, opening themselves up to discrimination lawsuits.

Why English Only?

Many businesses may want to impose English only policies, to be able to hear and understand what employees are saying, to keep them from saying things behind their supervisors’ backs, or to generally monitor what their employees are doing or saying at work. While all admirable, it is also illegal to impose English only policies in the workplace. Doing so can get your business sued, because even though you may think you are only limiting language, the federal government sees this as discrimination on the basis of national origin.

When English Only Policies are Legal

There are some limited circumstances where an employer can enforce an English only policy in the workplace.

It is legal to require employees to speak English, when employees are communicating with English speaking customers or clients. Additionally, if there is an emergency, or if English is needed for safety reasons, English only policies can be enforced and imposed.

Examples of when English only policies may be Ok are when a supervisor must monitor employees doing dangerous work, and communication is vital to workplace safety. The same would hold true with jobs like first responders, or air traffic controllers.

As a general rule, if English is truly a business necessity, then it can be enforced. But business necessity must be justified; there must be some bona fide reason why English is required to do the job—you cannot impose an English only policy just because you want to, or just because it makes your job as an employer easier.

Note that even if you are legally allowed to impose an English only rule (that is, you meet one of the exceptions), you generally cannot require employees to speak English when not doing their job—for example, if they are on lunch or rest breaks.

Additionally, if you are legally allowed to require only English in the workplace, you must provide advanced notice to employees about the rule, before disciplining them in the event that they do not speak English at work.

Accent Discrimination

The same rules for English only in the workplace hold true for accents; it is generally illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of their accent. The limited exceptions to this rule are where the job may require clear English to do the job.

For example, a 911 operator may need to be fully understood, as may a teacher, or other profession where communication is vital to do the job.

Call the West Palm Beach business lawyers at Pike & Lustig today for help with your office and business policies.



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