In light of controversies surrounding speaking languages other than English in the workplace -- such as arose in June 2013 when a manager at a Whole Foods Market in New Mexico purportedly suspended two Spanish-speaking workers from their jobs for speaking Spanish -- employees and employers alike may wonder what the law states on the legality of language policies at a company. Without proper justification, English-only policies could be discriminatory under the law.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifies in 29 CFR 1606.7 that the only time an employer may impose a rule on employees to speak only English is if the policy is a business necessity. Examples of the latter include communicating with supervisors or customers who speak only English or when collaborative work necessitates speaking only English to enhance productivity. Emergencies and other safety procedures may also make a common language a business necessity.
The EEOC investigates potential violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin. Examples of discrimination of this type include discrimination based on a person's appearance or customs; discrimination based on being associated with a particular nationality; and physical or verbal harassment based on nationality, such as ethnic slurs. English-only policies that do not have a reasonable business basis are included in this category. These are considered illegal under Title VII, and violations may be filed with the EEOC within 180 days of the occurrence.
The EEOC has successfully brought suit against companies on behalf of Hispanic employees for blanket English-only policies as violations of Title VII. In EEOC v. Premier Operator Services in 2000, the court held that the company's restrictive policy of prohibiting speaking Spanish at all times, except when helping Spanish-speaking customers, constituted disparate treatment discrimination based on national origin. The company's business reason for the policy of promoting harmony could not be justified given that there was no evidence of disharmony to prompt implementation of such measures.
Courts have upheld English-only policies when they believe that the business justification for the policy is valid. In the 2009 case of Perez v. New York Presbyterian Hospital, the court found that the hospital was within its bounds to enforce a policy of prohibiting speaking Spanish to patients who also speak English. The plaintiff in the case could not convince the court that the policy was motivated by discrimination, as the hospital's rationale for the policy was to prevent "splitting," which occurs when a patient hears two languages and then refuses to cooperate with English-speaking doctors. The court deemed the intention to avoid splitting a valid justification for the language policy.
- Forbes: English-Only Policies in the Workplace: Are They Legal? Are They Smart?
- Phoenix Business Journal: Language Dispute Puts Whole Foods in Workplace Spotlight
- Wilson Elser: Whether and When "English-Only" Rules in the Workplace Are Discriminatory
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Employment Rights of Immigrants Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws
Timothea Xi has been writing business and finance articles since 2013. She has worked as an alternative investment adviser in Miami, specializing in managed futures. Xi has also worked as a stockbroker in New York City.