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Got An “English Only” Policy? You Shouldn’t!

As the workforce becomes more diverse, many employers struggle with how to handle employees who are not native English speakers.  For instance, customers may complain they believe the employees are being rude by speaking in a “foreign” language, and the employer is left wondering what to do.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal watch dog that enforces employment discrimination laws, takes the position “English only” policies are an unlawful form of national origin discrimination.  Most state and local agencies agree.

National origin discrimination involves treating applicants or employees differently because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not).

As a general rule, the EEOC declares an employer may only base an employment decision on an employee’s accent if effective oral communication in English is required to perform the job and the individual’s foreign accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate orally in English.  For example, teaching, customer service, telemarketing to English customers are examples of jobs which may require effective oral communication.  An employee who has an accent but is able to communicate effectively and be understood in English cannot be disqualified due to an accent.    

However, many jobs do not have substantial direct interaction with customers or clients.  Therefore, a command of the English language is less important.  For instance, a production worker on a sandwich line can likely do the job effectively while understanding and speaking little-to-no English.  Instead, the employee may be shown how to make the sandwich and taught only enough English to understand the order.  Employers must be careful when requiring English be spoken when it is unnecessary for the job.  This is a tricky area of the law and should be handled cautiously by employers. When in doubt, consult with competent labor and employment counsel.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.