With more and more diverse and multi-lingual employees in the workplace, employers might institute a workplace rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace. Be wary of these policies as they can constitute a form of national origin discrimination in violation of federal and state laws. An English-only policy will be found to violate the anti-discrimination laws unless an employer can demonstrate that the policy is reasonably necessary to business operations. Rarely will there be a business justification for requiring employees to speak English only at all times in the workplace, even during break times and/or lunch periods. However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, has provided a few examples when an English-only policy may be permissible. These examples 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.”
Not only may English-only policies be discriminatory, such rules may also violate employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA prohibits employers from disciplining or retaliating against employees who engage in concerted activities. Concerted activity occurs when two or more employees join together to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment for mutual aid and benefit, i.e. discussing wages or complaining about the working conditions. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces the NLRA, found that an employer’s policy requiring employees, while on duty, to communicate only in English with other employees, staff, customers, and visitors in all work areas was an unlawful restraint on the employees’ rights under the NLRA. The rule was unlawful because it was overly broad and chilled employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. However, this is not to say that all English-only policies will violate the NLRA. Some policies may be permissible if there is a demonstrated business necessity and the policy is reasonably limited to on-duty time and specific locations, such as areas where customers and/or the public are present.
If you have any questions regarding whether a workplace rules is permissible, consult an experienced employment attorney.