Are "English-Only" Rules On The Job Discriminatory?


Over 46 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, with Spanish being the most common "other" language. Despite this (or maybe because of it), those who speak a different language or speak with an accent can experience significant discrimination in public and on the job. Rising social biases against immigrants are causing some employers to respond with an "English Only" rule at work. Is this legal? The answer depends on the circumstances.

Are English-Only Policies Discriminatory?

Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act doesn't expressly forbid discrimination based on native language, dialect, or accent. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has generally taken the position that English-only policies are an extension of discrimination based on national origin when they are too broadly applied.

In a limited form, though, English-only policies may be acceptable. If fluency in English is necessary for some reason due to the nature of the work or business, it can be justified and isn't discriminatory.

When Is An English-Only Rule Allowed?

A good way to judge this is whether or not the rule is necessary in order to make the business run efficiently or for safety reasons. There are a number of reasons that this could be true:

  • The customers, co-workers, and supervisors only speak English. Requiring an individual to speak only in English to those people would be necessary for ordinary business operations.
  • Employees are required to work in close co-operation and the only common language spoken is English. Requiring everyone to speak English would be necessary for efficiency.
  • The supervisor or manager only speaks English and needs to be able to understand what is being communicated between employees in order to effectively manage operations or evaluate workers.

It's important to note that any English-only rule has to be enforced equally against all other languages. For example, a policy can't be enforced against employees who speak Spanish but not employees who speak Arabic simply because the supervisor happens to also speak Arabic.

When Is An English-Only Rule Not Allowed?

It's important to keep the English-only rule narrowly confined to work situations, and then only when it is necessary. For example, a policy like that shouldn't be enforced when employees are on breaks or in the restroom, even if their use of a second language happens to make another employee uncomfortable or feel excluded. 

It's also important that employees with accents are discriminated against because of their accents. For example, an employee with a Spanish accent shouldn't be kept out of a customer service job as long as his or her English is fluent and the accent doesn't interfere with his or her ability to be understood. Nor should an employee whose native language isn't English be given a lower evaluation than others because of problems with his or her communication in English.

The business laws regarding language discrimination are still under-developed in many areas and individual situations can vary so much, even within one company, that it can be difficult to know when the law is and isn't being violated. If you're an employer, it pays to talk with an attorney to discuss how to form and implement any English-only policies. If you are an employee who feels discriminated against because of your native language, you should talk to an attorney about your case to see what can be done.

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