Are English-only rules and language fluency requirements legal under employment and discrimination laws? Federal law prohibits discrimination based on national origin, which includes a person's ancestry, birthplace, culture, or surnames associated with a particular ethnicity. Because linguistic characteristics -- the language an employee speaks and the accent an employee uses -- are often associated with national origin, English-only and language fluency policies can be discriminatory in some cases. At the same time, however, there may be legitimate reasons for job requirements based on linguistic characteristics, such as requiring that employees be fluent in English or speak in a way that can be easily understood by customers and coworkers. Although linguistic rules will be scrutinized carefully by courts to make sure they aren't discriminatory, those rules are legal if they are necessary for business reasons. (For more information on laws prohibiting national origin discrimination more generally, see Nolo's article Fighting Race and National Origin Discrimination.)
A job requirement that an employee must be fluent in English is legal if fluency is required to effectively perform the position. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces the laws prohibiting discrimination, has pointed out that the degree of fluency required varies from job to job, even within the same company. Therefore, blanket fluency requirements that apply equally to the customer service department and the warehouse workers might not be legal.
The same rules apply when a job requires fluency in a language other than English. For example, a company that has many customers who speak only Mandarin Chinese could legally require that employees who will interact with those customers also speak Mandarin Chinese.
English-only rules (which prohibit employees from speaking any language other than English while at work) may be legal, depending on the circumstances. First of all, the rule must not have been adopted for discriminatory reasons or be applied in discriminatory ways. For example, an employer may not adopt an English-only rule as a subterfuge to get rid of Latino workers. Similarly, an employer may not selectively enforce an English-only rule (for example, enforce the rule against workers who speak Tagalog but not workers who speak Spanish).
As long as the English-only rule isn't motivated by discriminatory intent, it will pass legal muster if it is necessary for the safe or efficient operation of the business. For example, if customers or coworkers are fluent only in English, then an English-only rule might be necessary to promote communication and ensure safety, in case of an emergency. If employees work closely together and some speak only English, an English-only rule might be necessary to allow everyone to do their jobs.
Before an employer adopts an English-only rule, it should notify employees and explain the consequences of breaking the rule. The employer should also make sure that the rule is narrowly tailored to address the actual needs of the workplace. For example, it is reasonable to require employees who deal with English-speaking customers to communicate in English. However, a rule that forbids workers from ever speaking another language, even during breaks or when a customer who also speaks that language is present, is probably too broad.
Because an employee's accent is often associated with his or her national origin, employment decisions based on accent are examined closely by courts. An employer may decide not to hire or promote an employee to a position that requires clear oral communication in English if the employee's accent substantially affects his or her ability to communicate clearly. However, if the employee's accent does not impair his or her ability to be understood, the employer may not make job decisions on that basis. For example, an employer may not simply adopt a blanket rule that employees who speak accented English may not work in customer service positions.
For more information on employee rights, see Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).