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English-only policies in the workplace may be illegal

Some employers have policies requiring employees to speak English in the workplace. A recent California workplace discrimination case highlights the risks of maintaining such a policy. In that case, an acute care hospital had to pay nearly $1 million to settle a class action brought by the EEOC on behalf of 70 Filipino-American employees who were required to speak English at work. Because the hospital's English-only policy did not apply to Spanish-speaking employees but only to those who spoke Tagalog or other Filipino languages, the EEOC determined the hospital was guilty of national origin discrimination.

It may be acceptable for an employer to maintain an English-only policy in certain limited circumstances based on business necessity. An English-only rule may be justified for communications with customers who speak only English, in emergencies in which a common language is needed for safety, for team assignments requiring a common language to promote efficiency and to enable English-only speaking supervisors to effectively monitor employee communications.


English-only policies are illegal if they are intended to discriminate against employees or if they are applied only to some minority groups but not others. Even if an English-only rule is justified by business necessity, it may not be applied to casual conversations between co-workers when they are not performing work.

Employees who believe they are being unfairly burdened by an employer policy that prevents them from speaking the language in which they are most proficient or who are being singled out from other groups because of their national origin may benefit from consulting with a workplace discrimination attorney. The attorney can advise them as to their legal rights and assist with the complaint process.

Source: Forbes, "English-Only Policies in the Workplace: Are They Legal? Are They Smart?," Richard Tuschman, Nov. 15, 2012

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