Requiring employees to speak English: Is it legal?

by on November 28, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

If you’re like a lot of employers these days, you probably have employees for whom English isn’t their first language. And as a result, you may be hearing everything from Hindi to Spanish to Tagalog to Tongan to Zulu in your workplace.

But what if you don’t like a sound track of multilingual chatter? Or what if native English speakers among your workers don’t? Or what if customers don’t? Can you ban or restrict the use of other languages on your premises?

When you can, and can’t
There are situations when you can insist on English. But there are also situations where you can’t, and if you do, you risk committing illegal discrimination based on national origin. The three cases above – personal objections by managers, co-workers or customers – are all good examples of the latter.

So when can you order employees to speak only English?

According to the EEOC, there must be a business necessity – not merely a business reason, or a business preference.

You may legally be able to order the use of English when employees must:

  • Hold business communications with customers, co-workers or supervisors who speak only English
  • Speak a single language to maintain a safe work environment
  • Carry out team assignments where multiple languages would affect efficiency, or
  • Have their performance monitored by supervisors who understand only English.

A related point: Language rules should apply only to specific work situations. Don’t try to ban the use of second languages when employees are on breaks, for instance, or on the phone with friends or relatives. Rules like this are almost certainly illegal.

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