Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) settled charges of national origin discrimination and retaliation against Total Employment and Management (TEAM)—a Washington employer who instituted a “No Spanish” rule in its workplace. TEAM, a staffing company, agreed to pay $276,000 to settle the charges filed with the EEOC. According to the EEOC, TEAM imposed a “No Spanish” rule without an adequate business necessity, and also fired five employees from two locations when those employees opposed the rule and continued to speak Spanish in the workplace.
As part of the settlement, TEAM agreed to revise and update its policies, provide its policies in English and Spanish, and train its employees on harassment and discrimination.
Under both the EEOC guidance and federal law, “English Only” employment rules violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits national origin discrimination, unless the employer can demonstrate a business necessity. These rules are considered discriminatory due to a disparate effect on employees who speak English as a second language, or through disparate treatment against those same employees when they speak their language of birth and are disciplined, or otherwise adversely affected.
EEOC regulations state that a rule requiring employees to always speak English is presumed to violate Title VII and will be closely scrutinized by the Commission. Such a rule can be valid in very limited circumstances and usually only at certain times. Some situations the EEOC indicates might meet the business necessity requirement are the following:
- Communicating with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English.
- In emergencies or other situations in which employees must speak a common language to promote safety.
- For cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
- To enable a supervisor who only speaks English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication in English with coworkers or customers.
Generally speaking, such a rule cannot be applied to casual conversations between employees when they are not performing job duties.
Likewise, federal courts have upheld “English Only” rules when there is a potential for workplace danger, where a foreign language is being used to further hostility in the workplace, or when monitoring of employees by supervisors is necessary. Trends in these court decisions track the EEOC guidance—the business justification must be narrow and necessary, and those justifications are shrinking.
Employers considering any rule regarding establishing or limiting language in the workplace should consult with employment counsel before implementing such a rule. A facially neutral policy may be discriminatory when applied, and a believed business justification for such a policy may run contrary to recent decisions and guidance.
The legal issues impacting workplaces are ever-changing (Employment Law in Motion!) and since publication, new or additional information not referenced in this blog post may be available.
This article is provided for informational purposes only—it does not constitute legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the firm and the reader. Readers should consult legal counsel before taking action relating to the subject matter of this article.