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The Language Gap: Managing a Multilingual Workforce

What would you do if you came upon a group of employees at a U.S.-based organization speaking a language other than English? Would your opinion change if the employees were speaking in front of English-speaking customers or a co-worker who spoke English only? What if the safety of the workplace depended on good communication between workers?

Many U.S. employers support English-only rules as a way to ensure good employee relations and a safe work environment. But recently such rules have become a political lightning rod.

Some employee advocates have accused employers of enacting English-only policies to discriminate against immigrants.

In 2006, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed over 200 complaints against employers over English-only rules—still a tiny portion of its workload, but about six times as many as it filed a decade ago.

Late in 2007, conservative lawmakers threatened to curtail EEOC funding unless the agency quit punishing employers who require English. Particularly irksome to some conservatives is an EEOC suit against a Salvation Army thrift store that fired two Spanish-speaking employees. The charity organization required that its workers learn English within a year and speak English only in the workplace after that point. The case was still pending.

EEOC officials maintain that they are enforcing federal law. Employers can require English, but such a policy cannot be in response to any one group, such as Spanish speakers, and it must be for a specific, business-related reason. This includes policies that are needed for safety or because employees need to communicate with co-workers and customers who speak only English.

"The commission takes the view that prohibiting people from speaking their primary language at all times can create an atmosphere of intimidation and inferiority," said EEOC spokesman David Grinberg.

According to EEOC guidance, even in instances where an English-only rule has been adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons, the employer's use of the rule should relate to specific circumstances in its workplace. An English-only rule is justified by "business necessity" if it is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently.

Situations where business necessity would justify an English-only rule include:

    • Communications with customers, co-workers or supervisors who speak only English.
    • Emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety.
    • Cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
    • To enable a supervisor who speaks only English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with co-workers or customers

In public guidance, the EEOC urges employers considering an English-only rule to weigh business justifications against possible discriminatory effects of the rule. While there is no precise test for making this evaluation, relevant considerations include:

    • Evidence of safety justifications for the rule.
    • Evidence of other business justifications for the rule, such as supervision or effective communication with customers.
    • Likely effectiveness of the rule in carrying out objectives.
    • English proficiency of workers affected by the rule.
    • In practice, though, many employers say their concerns about what language is spoken on the shop floor is rooted in concern about worker well-being, not in harming workers.

“I’m particularly concerned about people’s isolation—when they’re not understood by others or they don’t understand [what’s going on], they’re not part of the community," said Yvette Jarreau, director of leadership, learning and development at Eileen Fisher, a Massachusetts clothing manufacturer.

Andy Pimm of Lincoln Industries, a Nebraska metal finishing company, says he was concerned that many of his co-workers were not able to make appropriate choices for health benefits.

Penny Hobbs, a Texas-based lawyer who focuses on employment counseling, says she frequently receives calls from clients’ employers asking about the best way to manage a multilingual workforce. Many say they don't want to ban languages other than English but don't want to risk alienating customers or risk having workers who can't communicate a safety hazard or other problem.

For some employers, shouldering the cost of helping workers improve their English skills is a good solution. Jarreau of Eileen Fisher says her firm is considering offering English language instruction to workers on-site or helping to cover the costs of lessons an employee takes elsewhere.

Lincoln Industries, which has a sizable staff of workers from Latin America as well as the Middle East and Vietnam, has been offering English classes to workers during the work day for about seven years.

“We teach ESL on the clock. Classes are held on our campus, so [employees] get paid. For safety reasons you have to be able to read the safety signs. If they can’t read, we help them learn how,” said Lincoln spokesman Steven Bauer.

Pimm says the investment has paid off and has allowed some employees who started the company with limited English skills to shine and advance into leadership positions. Some assist HR in explaining benefits to employees who are still struggling with English.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, a trade group, has begun marketing educational materials aimed at its members to teach workers English.

“We are a service-oriented industry,” says Kathryn Potter, a spokeswoman for the association. Having workers on board who speak English “goes a long way toward ensuring the smooth operation of a hotel.”

Meanwhile, English-only advocates are pushing for legislation that would guarantee employers the right to adopt English-only policies. Lawmakers in Tennessee were considering an amendment to the state's human rights law to clarify that employers would not be violating workers' civil and employment rights if they order them to speak English while they are on the clock.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R- Tenn., has been pushing for federal English-only workplace legislation. His “Protecting English in the Workplace Act” would clarify that it is not against the law to prohibit languages other than English from being spoken while engaged in work. The legislation would not apply to a worker’s lunch hour or other designated breaks. Alexander's bill passed the Senate in 2007 but foundered in the House.

Jada Bradley is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.


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