The viral video of the now-infamous New York lawyer ranting about Spanish-speaking food service workers was a true head-shaker moment. It also is a reminder that workplace language can trigger not only strong emotions but also possible legal claims.
We wrote about this issue in a previous post back in 2015 when a customer in Applebees assaulted another diner for not speaking English in the restaurant. At that time, we suggested that employers seeking to head off such conflicts by requiring employees to speak English at work should probably scrap that idea and come up with a Plan B.
A Few Words About Language
Courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) will often view “English Only” policies as evidence of national origin discrimination under Title VII if they are inflexibly enforced without regard to the particular circumstances. As a result, an employer cannot discipline two employees who, for example, choose to speak Spanish to each other at work, even if it makes a co-worker feel uncomfortable or excluded.
On the other hand, employers may require employees to speak only English in the work place at certain times if the directive is justified by business necessity. The EEOC has explained in its Compliance Manual that an English Only policy is justified by business necessity “if it is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently.” The following examples may justify an English Only policy:
- For necessary job-related communications with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English;
- In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety;
- For cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency; and
- To enable a supervisor who only speaks English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with coworkers or customers.
Even if there is a need for English to be spoken in these circumstances, an employer may not impose a blanket policy requiring English to be spoken at all times – the policy must be tailored to the specific circumstance for which English is required.
In an increasingly diverse workforce, employees will frequently wish to converse with each other in their native language. As long as doing so does not impede production or interfere with necessary communication on the job, they should be allowed to do so. Otherwise, you or your organization might end up the subject of the next viral video on this issue.