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English-Only Rule Questioned

Courts and enforcement agencies strictly scrutinize English-only polices. Consideration must be given to whether English-only policies encompass business-only conversations and do not create a hostile work environment.

February 16, 2006
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance
The City of Altus, Oklahoma, adopted an ‘English-only’ policy that required its employees to communicate in English in all work-related communications, except when necessary to communicate with a member of the public with limited English skills. The policy exempted certain private conversations.

    About 30 city employees were Hispanic, and they were the only significant national-origin group affected by the policy. The employees sued, alleging that the policy discriminated against them on the basis of race and national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal laws, and deprived them of equal protection and freedom of speech. The district court dismissed the claims in favor of the city on all of these claims.

    On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver reversed. The court held that a jury should be permitted to determine whether the impact of the English-only policy on Hispanic workers was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of their employment and create an abusive working environment.

    Additionally, the defendant failed to present sufficient evidence of a business necessity to justify the implementation of the English-only policy. The plaintiffs claimed the English-only policy, as enforced, encompassed lunch hours, breaks and private telephone conversations; the defendant conceded that there would be no business reason for such a restriction. Maldonado v. Altus, 10th Cir., No. 04-6062 (1/11/06).

    Impact: Courts and enforcement agencies strictly scrutinize English-only policies. Consideration must be given to whether an English-only policy encompasses only business-related conversations, is supported by legitimate business reasons, is enforced only in accordance with its terms, and does not create a hostile work environment for non-English-speaking employees.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

Workforce Management, February 13, 2006, p. 7 -- Subscribe Now!

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