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The Limitations on "English-Only" Rules in the Workplace


Many employers, including for example healthcare providers, often question whether they can legally maintain an English-only policy within their workplace. While many employers seek bilingual and multilingual employees for business reasons, there are other reasons that some form of an English-only policy needs to be in place. This article will discuss some of the limitations on such policies in the workplace and how an inappropriate policy may violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Competing Needs of Consumers and Employers

With multicultural workplaces becoming increasingly more common, the issue of regulating language use in the workplace remains a sensitive and challenging concern for most employers and employees alike. In the field of health care, more and more employers are seeking skilled health care workers who can speak more than one language in order to provide necessary care to the more diverse patients and family members.

The ability to speak languages in addition to English is often an asset for businesses that need to communicate with consumers or clients who do not speak English. In the healthcare field, this can be even more important because patients and their families need to be able to understand the status of their health and the nature of the health care services that will be provided.

Regardless of the obvious benefits, it is equally important for employees to be able to proficiently read and write in English. It can easily be argued that there is a legitimate business reason for requiring employees in our country to read, speak, and write in English. In the health care field, for example, the safety and well-being of patients depend on this requirement. Essentially, employees who are unable to read and write in English will pose a threat of liability for the facility with which they work by compromising the health of the patients.

Are English-Only Requirements Ever Legal?

The U.S. Supreme Court has not decided this issue definitively. This means there is no bright-line rule available for employers to use to ensure compliance with federal laws. As a result, the legality of an employer’s language-use policy will depend on the situation. The EEOC has provided some guidance with regard to this issue. In its view, English-only policies are presumptively discriminatory on the basis of national origin.

However, as with most things, there are exceptions in cases where there is a business necessity requiring such rules. In the health care arena, such an exception may be warranted. Nevertheless, the policy must be designed and implemented in such a way that one specific language is not targeted unfairly, which could demonstrate discriminatory intent.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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