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Are English-Only Rules in the Workplace Lawful?

Answer: Depends

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that ‘English-only’ rules for workplace employees violate the law unless they are “reasonably necessary to the operation of the business.” The EEOC further delineates caveats for employers:

• A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified.

• An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently.

• Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include: communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.

They also note that even if there is a need for an English-only rule, “an employer may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule and the consequences of violating it.”

While English-only policies may only be warranted for “business necessity,” some courts and the EEOC take the position that such rules hinder national origin individuals from speaking the language that they are best able to communicate and employers should bear in mind that any English-only policy should not apply to non-work related casual conversation in addition to being uniformly applied regardless of race or country of origin.

The EEOC has filed national origin discrimination lawsuits against employers that have violated the law as in the case of EEOC v. Delano Regional Medical Center (DRMC). According to the EEOC, this hospital prohibited Filipino employees from speaking their native language while allowing non-Filipino employees to speak other languages such as Spanish. The EEOC further alleged that DRMC management created a hostile work environment for the Filipino employees by targeting them for reprimands in a company meeting that served as a reminder to the workers about the English-only policy, threatened them with audio surveillance to ensure compliance with the company’s English-only policy and encouraged other employees to report on them; all of which caused tension between the Filipino and non-Filipino staff members. In addition, the Commission also alleged that upper-level hospital management failed to investigate or take action against the alleged discrimination even after 115 Filipino employees signed a petition reporting the discrimination and harassment.

When pre-litigation settlement negotiations failed, the EEOC filed the lawsuit and sought compensatory and punitive damages, and an injunction against future discrimination. The case was settled when the hospital agreed to a three-year consent decree that required DRMC to pay monetary relief, the development of strong protocols for handling discrimination and harassment complaints, the hiring of an EEO monitor whose function would be to help the hospital revise policies, procedures as well as conduct anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training for staff and additional training for supervisors.

This case should serve as a reminder to employers when devising English-only policies the law should be considered and that targeting employees on the basis of their national origin is illegal. It also should empower employees to report national origin discrimination and harassment to supervisors and/or management rather than accept discriminatory treatment.

If you believe that, you have suffered from arbitrarily applied English-only rules or National Origin Discrimination contact The Sanders Firm, P.C. in New York. We will review your claim thoroughly, providing you with an outline of possible actions you may wish to take. We are ready to be your voice for justice.