U.S. Firms Can Impose English-Only Policies, but Within Limits

By Frank Klimko Dec 16, 2008

Multinational corporations operating in the United States can institute English-only policies, but within specific limits, experts say.

Carefully thought out English-only rules can be put in place, according to a panel of experts who spoke before a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) briefing on “Specifying English as the Common Language of the Workplace: Every Employer’s Right or a Violation of Federal Law?” held Dec. 12, 2008, in Washington, D.C.

Businesses should be careful when implementing English-only workplace rules, experts told the commission. During the past 10 years, 2,003 allegations of English-only workplace rule violations have been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with policing English-only policies.

Yet, those allegations are “a small fraction” of the EEOC caseload, said Reed Russell, EEOC legal counsel on English-only policies.

When English-Only Is Allowed

However, many employers across the country have implemented English-only policies for legitimate business reasons, Russell said, such as for promoting safety and efficiency in the workforce; improving employees’ English proficiency, especially in companies with a primarily English-speaking customer base; and enhancing the effectiveness of employee supervision.

Workplace safety—specifically an employee’s ability to effectively communicate with other employees in a crisis—is likely the primary reason for instituting workplace English-only rules, Russell said. Such policies can be vital in industries such as construction, where communication problems can result in monetary losses or worker injury or death. “One of the EEOC’s own Commission decisions from the early 1980s upheld a policy at an oil refinery which required employees to speak only English during emergencies or while performing work duties in the laboratory or processing areas where there was a risk of fire or explosion,” he added.

However, employers should be wary of overly broad English-only rules that are unlikely to be viewed as a legitimate business consideration, Russell said. “English-only policies should not be imposed merely because some non-Spanish-speaking employees dislike eating lunch in the same room with co-workers who engage in private conversations,” he said.

That doesn’t mean non-English-speaking employees can say whatever they want without consequence, though. For example, if an employee makes derogatory remarks about another employee in a foreign language, the best way for the employer to handle the situation is probably to use its standard disciplinary procedures, Russell said.

In addition, there are some common sense rules that multinational firms with operations in the United States need to observe, such as not claiming that because the parent company is a foreign entity the business does not have to comply with U.S. employment law, Lenore Ostrowsky, a CCR spokeswoman, tells SHRM Online. “If they [a multinational corporation] operate in the U.S., they are expected to comply with U.S. workplace laws.”

In addition, companies should be mindful of their hiring practices, Ostrowsky said. “If a company wanted to hire only Spanish-speaking individuals, and an English-only speaker was turned down, then that person would probably have grounds for an EEOC complaint,” she said. However, businesses that advertise for multilingual or bilingual speakers and can show a real workplace need for those language skills would probably withstand an EEOC challenge, she said.

Frank Klimko is a Washington, D.C.-area writer with extensive experience covering federal regulatory agencies.


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