National origin is one of the protected classes under both California and federal law. That means it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against applicants and employees based on where they were born (or where their parents or those even farther back in their family) were born.
While this applies to decisions around hiring, promotion and firing, it also applies to other aspects of employment. One way that some employers still discriminate based on national origin is by forbidding employees from speaking their native language (or any non-English language) in the workplace – even when they’re having a non-work-related conversation with another employee on a lunch hour or break.
What does federal law say?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that an all-encompassing English-only policy (or something similar, like a “No Spanish” policy) is “a burdensome term and condition of employment….[that is] presumed to violate Title VII.”
The U.S. Department of Labor allows employers to require English to be spoken under the following circumstances:
- In “cooperative work assignments”
- When communicating with those (employees, customers, vendors and others) who only speak English
- In emergencies or safety-related situations
When it’s the only way a supervisor can monitor or assess someone’s work
In many workplaces, even in highly diverse California, English is spoken almost exclusively. However, two people having a personal conversation in the break room or hallway shouldn’t have to speak English simply because others might feel left out or fear they’re being talked about. The same is true if someone is talking on the phone to a family member or friend.
If you’re being told to “speak English” by a supervisor or co-worker when it’s not one of the scenarios listed above, you shouldn’t have to be afraid to politely but firmly assert your rights. If you believe that you’re being subject to illegal discrimination, and you can’t resolve the issue with your employer, you may benefit from seeking legal guidance.