Can An Employer Require Employees to Speak English Only?

English-only Policy in the Workplace

The state of California has one of the most diverse populations in the country. Many people in California come from countries from all over the world and some speak multiple languages. But, which language should you speak while in the workplace? If you speak more than one language, you may be wondering whether or not an employer is allowed to require employees to speak only English while in the workplace. Here’s what you need to know to protect your rights at work:

National Origin Discrimination in the Workplace

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their national origin. A person’s national origin is the country or part of the world that they originate from, or their ethnicity. For example, a person who is from Iraq may consider their national origin to be Iraqi or Middle Eastern.

It’s also important to note that employers cannot discriminate against someone based on their actual or perceived national origin or ethnicity. For example, if an employer harasses someone because they believe the person originates from Mexico, this is illegal even if the person is not really from Mexico. The intent behind the employer’s action was to illegally harass someone based on their national origin, which is why this is still considered illegal discrimination.

In some cases, an employer asking an employee to only speak English in the workplace could be viewed as national origin discrimination. However, employers are legally permitted to require employees to speak only English under certain circumstances.

When English-Only Rules Are Permitted

According to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, employers can establish rules that require employees to only speak English at certain times. To comply with the law, employers must inform employees of the rules and go over the consequences that an employee may face for violating them. In addition, an employer must be able to show that the established English-only rules are justified by a business necessity.

But, what is a business necessity? In this case, it means that an employer must show that requiring employees to only speak English during certain times is necessary to ensure that everyone is safe and the operations run efficiently.

For example, let’s say an employer establishes a rule that states employees must speak English when operating heavy machinery. This rule is necessary to ensure that everyone who is working around heavy machinery can communicate with other with ease to remain safe. If this rule wasn’t in place, a worker could yell to another worker to get out of the way in a language that the worker does not understand. Therefore, speaking different languages in this type of situation could put workers in dangers, thus an English-only rule is necessary.

If the employer cannot prove that speaking English is crucial to the safety of employees or the efficiency of the operation, English-only rules could be considered a type of national origin discrimination.

Employers Must Consider Alternative Practices

Some employees may feel discriminated against if they are told not to speak their native language in the workplace. This is true even if the reasoning behind the English-only rule is justified. Because of this, the state encourages employers to look for alternative practices before establishing English-only rules. This means if there is another way to ensure safety and efficiency in the workplace that does not involve language restrictions or any other discriminatory practice, the employer should use this alternative as opposed to establishing English-only rules.

Some employers know there are alternative practices that could be used instead of English-only rules, but they choose to establish English-only rules anyways. If this happens, the employer can be held liable for national origin discrimination. This is because the employer chose to enforce a discriminatory rule when there was another non-discriminatory option available that would have achieved the same goal.

Other Issues Related to Language

There are several other language-related issues that may arise in the workplace. First, an employer may choose not to hire an employee because they don’t speak fluent English. If you are not fluent in English, it’s important to understand how this may affect your ability to find employment.

Federal law prohibits employers from requiring employees to speak fluent English unless fluency is necessary in order to perform the job. For instance, someone who is interviewing for a job as a telemarketer may be required to speak fluent English in order to communicate with the people they speak to on the phone. If the applicant does not speak fluent English, it is not discriminatory to hire another applicant that is fluent. However, if the person can still perform the duties of the job without speaking fluent English, this should not be a factor in the employer’s decision.

Some people in California are fluent in English even though it is not their first language. Many of these people have a noticeable accent when they speak that distinguishes them from other native speakers. Even though having an accent may set you apart, it shouldn’t put you at a disadvantage in the workplace.

Employers cannot discriminate against someone who has an accent unless the accent seriously interferes with the person’s performance. This means unless the accent affects the person’s job, employers cannot consider a person’s accent when making any job-related decision, including but not limited to who to hire, fire, promote, or reassign to a new position.

Are you being discriminated against in the workplace because of your national origin? If so, seek legal representation from an experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible. Our employment law attorneys at Shegerian & Associates will fight tirelessly to protect your rights in the workplace. Contact us today by calling 1-800-GOT-FIRED.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.