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Ask an HR Expert: Can We Encourage our Workers to Learn English?

A SHRM knowledge advisor reviews the options when a sizable portion of your workforce is not fluent in the language.

A row of empty chairs in a classroom.

​Rather than asking employees to focus on improving only their English skills, urge them to take a range of classes to avoid running afoul of anti-discrimination laws. Basic-level courses include English as a second language (ESL), GED or high school equivalency, and math classes. Many low-skilled workers can benefit from all of these. Keep in mind that employees will be more likely to take advantage of educational opportunities that are free or low-cost and local. 

McDonald’s encourages its employees to become proficient in English through its English Under the Arches program, which focuses on teaching terms common in the restaurant industry. In Missouri, a Tyson Foods poultry plant has a less formal program. Workers there can access free ESL classes on their own time with volunteers at a local church.

Employers can also partner with local adult education centers, which usually offer no-cost and low-cost classes. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Career One Stop program provides free basic skills courses through partnerships with public schools, libraries and community organizations throughout the U.S.

Whichever approach you take, be mindful of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Time spent in required training is compensable. However, pay is not necessary when attendance is voluntary, outside of work hours and not work-related.

It can be illegal for supervisors to treat individuals differently because they have a heavy accent or to require English-only in the workplace at all times, even during rest and meal breaks. Similarly, employers should not mandate English fluency as a job requirement unless there is a legitimate business reason, such as workplace safety, for doing so.

Nora Harsha, SHRM-SCP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management.

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