In our multi-cultural environment, it’s not uncommon to be in a restaurant or hospital, for example, and hear the employees speaking to one other in a language other than English. For those of us who sadly understand only English, this certainly frustrates our eavesdropping. But can an employer require such employees to speak only English while at work?
California law (Govt C §12951) prohibits an employer from adopting or enforcing a policy that limits or prohibits the use of any language in any workplace unless both of the following conditions are met:
- The language restriction is justified by business necessity; and
- The employer has notified its employees of the circumstances and the time when the language restriction is required to be observed, and the consequences for violating the language restriction.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made a similar finding. 29 CFR §1606.7.
So, what constitutes a “business necessity” for speaking only in English?
California law defines “business necessity” as an overriding legitimate business purpose such that the language restriction is necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the business. The restriction must also effectively fulfill the business purpose that it is supposed to serve, and there must be no alternative practice to the language restriction that would accomplish the business purpose equally well with a lesser discriminatory impact. Govt C §12951(b).
The EEOC cites the following examples as aspects of employment that justify an English-only rule:
- Communications with customers, co-workers, or supervisors who speak only English;
- Emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety;
- Cooperative work assignments, in which the rule is needed to promote efficiency; and
- An English-speaking supervisor’s need to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with co-workers or customers.
To be on the safe side, employers should clearly identify the need for any language restriction and carefully consider all alternatives before establishing English-only workplace rules. As changes in the workforce population increase, so does the need for sensitivity, caution, and care in this area.
For everything you need to know about employment discrimination, turn to CEB’s Advising California Employers and Employees, chap 15. If it comes to litigation, turn to CEB’s Wrongful Employment Termination Practice.
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