English only policy and ethnic discrimination at work

by on January 14, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Catering to touchy non-Spanish-speakers got employer in trouble

If you’re considering an English-only policy for your workplace, make sure it’s not overly broad.

That’s the lesson of a case in which an Oklahoma municipality got in trouble for ethnic discrimination at work.

The city created the policy after somebody complained about the use of a municipal-radio frequency by Spanish-speaking employees. This bothered other employees who couldn’t understand them.

Not so reasonable

The city thought its policy was reasonable. But when several Spanish-speaking workers sued for hostile work environment and ethnic discrimination, the court thought otherwise, and let their case go to trial.

There were two main problems, the court said:

  • Although the written policy covered only work-related conversations, it was being used to stop workers from speaking Spanish whenever English-only speakers were around. This was supposedly to avoid offending those who couldn’t understand Spanish.
  • English-only speakers were taunting the Spanish speakers about the ban on their mother tongue.
    Safety concerns

You can impose an English-only policy if you show a clear business reason: safety, for instance, or interaction with customers. But if a policy merely supports the prejudices of unenlightened co-workers, it won’t pass legal muster.

Cite: Maldonado v. City of Altus, No. 04-6062, 10th Cir., 1/11/06.

Ethnic discrimination in the workplace or job necessity

Some managers may wonder if they’re allowed to demand that employees speak English when they’re on the job.

In this case a court said “No.” Supervisors at a fence-installation company demanded that workers speak English at all times, including when they were on break. The workers sued and they won. Under the law, an employee may be required to speak English only when it is necessary to conduct business. But when employees are among themselves and not conducting business they may speak any language they please.

The employer paid 14 workers $50,000.

Cite: EEOC v. United Fence Co.

‘No Spanish’ rule costs hospital $200k

An English-only rule at a hospital caused havoc – Spanish-speaking workers didn’t understand where to clean – and cost $200,000.

That’s what the hospital will pay to settle an EEOC ethnic discrimination lawsuit. Such rules are justified only for business necessity, such as safety or customer service.

Cite: EEOC v. Highland Hospital.

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