Can an Employer Require Employees to Speak Only English?

Mar 27 2018

The United States is known as the world’s “melting pot,” with people from every corner of the globe and every culture and background who call our country home. Not surprisingly, our workforce reflects the diversity of our population, including in Connecticut.

In many instances, this diversity includes people from nationalities and ethnicities that do not speak English as a primary language. It should come as no surprise, then, that Connecticut workplaces include employees who regularly speak a language other than English.

In response, some employers have adopted policies requiring their employees to speak only English in the workplace. These policies may have legitimate business justifications, including avoiding hostility or segregation between employees, decreasing inefficient workplace behavior, and improving overall customer service. However, these policies also can have negative consequences, including marginalizing non-native Americans and promoting a culture of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), English-only policies can constitute employment discrimination. An English-only rule that applies only at certain times may be acceptable if the employer can demonstrate a business justification for it. In contrast, a rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace, including on breaks, will rarely be justified. Whatever rule employers adopt, they should provide reasonable notice to the employees.

Some courts have agreed with the EEOC, finding English-only policies to constitute discrimination on the basis of national origin. For example, a federal court in Texas concluded that a group of Hispanic workers were subject to wrongful and discriminatory termination when they were fired for refusing to sign and follow a restrictive language policy.

Liability is not the only reason that employers might want to steer clear of English-only policies. Just as our workforce has grown more diverse, so has the customer base that it serves. Companies might do well to encourage their employees to use their diverse language skills for the benefit of their customers. Doing so might also increase employee morale.

If you are being denied your right to speak your chosen language in your workplace, our Connecticut employment discrimination lawyers are here to help. Contact Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti, P.C. today to discuss your options.

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