According to the EEOC, nearly 18 percent of today’s American workforce speaks little to no English.
The EEOC on English-Only Policies
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of native language. However, the EEOC believes that discriminating on the basis of language extends to discriminating against a person’s national origin, which violates Title VII. Federal courts are split on the EEOC’s interpretation, and only a handful of states have thus far enacted their own laws regarding English-only policies. The EEOC’s position is that policies requiring employees speak English at “certain times” are permissible. These policies are justified only if speaking English constitutes a business necessity. For example, if any employee needed to communicate with supervisors who only speak English, he/she may be required to speak English at certain times.
In bringing lawsuits regarding English-only policies, the EEOC has reached substantial settlements. The largest case to date was against the University of Incarnate Word. The University prohibited eighteen Hispanic housekeepers from speaking a language other than English, at all times. In that case, the EEOC reached a $2.44 million settlement in the class-action suit.
The EEOC on Spanish-Only Policies
Though English-only policies are more prevalent, the EEOC has taken a uniform stance on all language rules. The EEOC has brought a discrimination suit against Houston-based Champion Fiberglass for its Spanish-only policy. Freddie Foster, an African American, was denied an application for a labor position because of his inability to speak Spanish. The EEOC is alleging this violates Title VII.
Employers’ Take Away
Employers considering implementing workplace language policies should tread carefully. In most cases, a language policy requires clear business justifications. Employers who currently have workplace language policies might consider training employees on their anti-discrimination policies and to specify the times the restriction is not in place. Notice of a language policy is required by the EEOC. Employers must receive a signed acknowledgement from employees who are subject to the policy. If you have questions about compliance with Title VII, contact one of our attorneys at our Sioux City law firm, Sioux Falls law firm, or Omaha law firm. For more on the EEOC, visit our HR Legal Insider blog.