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english-only workplace rules

Can My Employer Prohibit Me From Speaking Languages Other than English at Work?

The Federal and State anti-discrimination laws cover many protected groups, including race, gender, sex, and religion. What many employees do not realize or appreciate is that these laws also prohibit discrimination based on national origin.

The EEOC has taken the position that discrimination based on national origin discrimination includes discrimination based on an employee speaking a language other than English. According to the EEOC, employers who create an "English-only" policy can be violating anti-discriminatory laws unless they can justify the business necessity of such policies.   

What Does National Origin Discrimination Mean? 

National origin discrimination is a very broad category and is not limited to negative comments arising out of a person’s birthplace. Rather, it includes ancestral origin, ethnic group origin, and even mistaken national origin.

Not only that, but it includes discrimination based on physical, linguistic and cultural characteristics closely associated with a national origin group, such as dress and accent. Nor does your harasser have to belong to a different national origin group. Illegal discrimination can occur from others of the same origin.  

Are English-Only Policies Illegal & Discriminatory? 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—the agency charged with enforcing federal laws on anti-discrimination—asserts that a policy that requires English at all times is typically illegal. 

Some examples of illegal English-only policies and actions that workers should be aware of:

  • Disciplining workers with accents: Your employer cannot discipline or otherwise adversely impact your job for an accent unless the accent “seriously interferes” with your ability to do the job. 
  • English-only during breaks: Under California law, English-only rules are never lawful during an employee's non-work time, such as meal and rest breaks.  

When applied at all times during an employee’s shift, English-only rules are burdensome and likely discriminate based on individual’s nation origins. An employee’s native language is considered part of their national origin such that prohibiting employees from speaking their native language when English is not necessary limits their employment opportunities on the basis of national origin.  

When Are English-Only Rules Legal at Work?

An English-only rule is only allowed if it is necessary to ensure the safe or efficient operation of the employer’s work, and is put in place for nondiscriminatory reasons—a rather high bar for an employer to meet.

For example:

  • If a job requires communicating with customers who only speak English
  • If the role involves emergency situations where English is the common language to ensure safety
  • If English is necessary for supervisors to monitor employees as part of their managerial duties

Talk to an Experienced Employment Attorney 

If you have been discriminated against by being forced to speak English at work, or in any other way relating to your race or national origin, do not hesitate to contact us today through our website or give us a call at (213) 214-3757 for a free consultation. 

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