English Only Policies

In light of the changing demographics in the United States and the increase in national dialog on immigration, the question of whether employers may enforce an “English only” rule in the workplace is increasingly common. Some may be surprised to know that requiring employees to speak only English at work could be interpreted by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) as discrimination based on one’s national origin, which is a violation of Title VII. The EEOC asserts that “the primary language of an individual is often an essential national origin characteristic,” which means that limiting an employee’s ability to speak his or her primary language may create an atmosphere of inferiority or isolation and put the employee at a disadvantage. There is an exception to this general guidance if the employer enforces an “English only” policy only at certain times, which is justified by business necessity, such as a potential safety issue. However, in this case, an employer must be certain to clearly articulate the rule to employees and should consult legal counsel before taking adverse action against the employee, as the EEOC may interpret adverse action for this reason as discrimination on the basis of national origin.