Are English-Only Policies Legal?
As someone who grew up in Mexico
City in a home where three languages were spoken (I spoke Spanish with my
brother and my friends, French with my mother, and English with my father), I
have never been uncomfortable in a workplace where employees might speak in a
foreign language, even one that I don’t speak.
Notwithstanding my own comfort with
multilingual workplaces, I recognize that employers often do have legitimate
justifications for having English-only policies. For example, tensions can
arise if two employees speak together in a language that a third employee
doesn’t understand. “Are they talking about me?”, the third employee may
wonder. Safety can also be undermined if your workplace has become a Tower of
Babel. This is especially true in manufacturing facilities, refineries or
chemical plants where it is important for everyone to communicate in a single
On the other hand, there is less
business justification for English-only policies that apply to private
conversations between employees on break or to employees that the employer
knows barely speak English. Such situations are common in restaurant kitchens
or the housekeeping departments of hotels, where a great majority of employees
may speak a language other than English. In those situations, the English-only
policy could be viewed in potential litigation as one that creates a hostile
work environment based on national origin.
But are English-only policies legal?
Generally speaking, yes! While the EEOC has taken the position that an employee
can establish a prima facie case of disparate impact discrimination by proving
existence of an English-only rule, courts have generally been willing to accept
employers’ business justifications for their policies.
So when does an English-only policy
violate the law? A good example of a problematic English-only policy was
provided this week when a San Antonio resort entered into a $2.6 million
settlement with the EEOC. The resort’s unwritten English-only policy was
especially draconian in that it applied to Spanish-speaking employees
throughout the property, regardless of their position, including during their
lunch breaks. The resort’s defense was further undermined by the fact that
there was evidence of managers referring to Hispanic employees with derogatory
terms, which suggested that the policy was driven by racial animus rather than
business justifications. Finally, there was evidence that the resort only
targeted Spanish-speaking employees because it did not apply the policy to
employees who spoke other foreign languages.
If an employer decides to adopt an
English-only policy, it’s best if the policy is applicable only when the
employees are actually working and that both the policy and its purpose are
clearly communicated to the employees. It also helps if the employer is
seriously committed to maintaining a discrimination-free workplace and does not
tolerate discrimination against employees because of their national origin or