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Why a blanket “English only” workplace policy is discrimination

On Behalf of | Apr 14, 2024 | Employment Discrimination

Illegal workplace discrimination isn’t always as obvious as employees being allowed to use racial, homophobic and other slurs and insults or managers refusing to hire people of a particular gender, ethnicity or religion. Discrimination can manifest in many ways.

For example, some employers still have a problem with hearing employees speaking a language other than English – even when they’re not engaging in work-related activities. Unfortunately, some go as far as telling employees they may speak only English while they’re in the workplace and on “company time.” 

They may even post “English only” or “No Spanish” (or other specific language) signs in break rooms or other areas. They may let employees tell co-workers who aren’t talking to them to “speak English” because they’re afraid they’re being talked about.

National origin discrimination

That’s a form of discrimination based on national origin, which is illegal under California and federal law. National origin discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, involves discrimination based on a person’s “actual or perceived place of birth, country of origin, ancestry, native language, accent, or because they are perceived as looking or sounding ‘foreign.’”

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a “rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment.”

When can English be required?

Of course, in most workplaces, English is the one language all employees can speak even though they may have a multitude of native languages. It’s typically the language used throughout the workplace. That’s why employers have the right to require communication in English when:

  • Employees are working on “cooperative” assignments or projects.
  • Employees are communicating with others whose first or only language is English.
  • A supervisor needs to monitor or assess an employee’s work.
  • There’s an emergency or safety-related event.

What an employer doesn’t have the right to do is tell someone they can’t speak another language to a family member or friend on the phone or to a co-worker during a private conversation.

California has one of the most diverse workforces in the country. While that’s a big advantage, it frightens and disturbs some people – and some of those people are employers. Chances are that if they’re requiring employees to speak only English at all times, they’re engaged in other forms of discrimination. It’s important for employees to know their rights and to seek legal guidance if necessary to protect those rights and their job.