EEOC Cracking Down on “Speaking English Only Policies”

Immigration reform continues to be a hot button issue, and a recent rash of lawsuits continues to fuel the debate over whether an “English-only” rule constitutes national origin discrimination. The EEOC’s position is that a “rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment” and presumptively “violates Title VII.” 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7(a). According to the EEOC, an “employer may have a rule requiring that employees speak only in English at certain times where the employer can show that the rule is justified by business necessity.” 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7(b). The majority of federal courts, however, have shown some tolerance of “English-only” rules. Generally, Courts will uphold an English-only rule if the employer can show a legitimate business justification for the requirement. Examples of legitimate business justifications that have been found to justify an English-only requirement are:

• Stemming hostility among employees (“They are talking about me!”).
• Fostering politeness to customers.
• Promoting communication with customers, coworkers, or supervisors.
• Enabling employees to speak a common language to promote safety.
• Facilitating a supervisor’s ability monitor the performance of an employee.
• Furthering interpersonal relations among employees.

Employers should be careful, however, to limit the reach of an English-only requirement only as far as it necessary to reach the articulated business rationale for the policy. For example, English-only requirements have been struck down as discriminatory where the policy included lunch hours, breaks, and even private telephone conversations.

Recently, one employer found out the hard way. The EEOC filed a lawsuit against a Wisconsin metal and plastic products manufacturer, claiming that it fired a group of foreign employees because of their national origin. According to the lawsuit, each of the 10 fired employees received overall satisfactory ratings on their annual performance evaluations, but received mark-downs for their English skills, which the EEOC alleged were not needed to perform their jobs.

It really is not a complicated issue. When speaking English fluently is not, in fact, required for the safe and effective performance of a job, nor for the successful operation of the employer’s business, requiring employees to be fluent in English usually constitutes employment discrimination on the basis of national origin—and thus violates federal law.

In the recent case noted above, the EEOC alleged that the employer penalized the employees for English fluency in non-essential functions. If you intend to enforce an English-only rule, make sure you can justify the nexus between English fluency and job performance. For example, would safety or efficiency be impacted if employees cannot communicate in English? Does the job require interaction with non-employees, such as vendors or customers? If you can demonstrate a nexus between English proficiency and essential job performance, your English-only policy will have a much greater chance of surviving EEOC scrutiny.

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