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When is English Only Discrimination

February 25, 1999
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Featured Article
Issue:Your manufacturing company employs many workers who speak Vietnamese. You are ready to implement work teams. A team leader wants to have a rule that only English may be spoken during team meetings and on the production floor during working time. You have concerns as you suspect that there may be a negative reaction from the employees. Also, you know that English-only rules can be a sign of discrimination. Should you approve the team leader’s request?

Not yet. Rules requiring that employees speak only English at ALL TIMES in the workplace may disadvantage workers on the basis of national origin and can create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation that results in a discriminatory working environment.

The EEOC takes the position that English-only rules applied at all times are presumptively discriminatory, although the courts have not always agreed with that approach. When a rule is applied at CERTAIN TIMES, it must be justified by a business purpose in order to avoid discrimination claims. Rules applied during WORK TIME only are less likely to be considered harassment and more likely to show a business purpose.

What should you do?

Decide whether an English-only rule is necessary.
Ask the team leader if there really is a language problem. As long as employees are not interfering with the company's efficiency or causing tensions with other employees, there might not be any harm for certain employees to converse in another language. It may, in fact, be easier for employees to speak in their primary language and it may boost their morale to be able to do so, especially during the transition period to teams.

Determine if an English-only rule is a business necessity.
It has been shown that the use of another language at work may adversely affect efficiency, job performance, safety, teamwork, customer service, management-employee communications and racial/ethnic tension. In such cases, an English-only rule has been found to be a business necessity. You may find that the team leader believes that requiring employees to speak English at all team meetings and while working would ensure that all employees and supervisors could understand each other during meetings and that it would prevent injuries through effective communication on the production floor. He may also believe that it would prevent non-Vietnamese employees from feeling that they were being talked about by Vietnamese employees. Such reasons suggest that there is a business purpose for an English-only rule.

Is everybody fluent in English?
The use of English may be difficult for some employees. If a team leader is uncertain whether a Vietnamese employee understands instructions or information provided in English, the team leader should makes sure that the instructions or information is also explained in Vietnamese. Also, the company could offer English classes to employees whose primary language is not English.

Communicate the rule to employees.
Should you decide to implement an English-only rule, employees need to be told about it--who it applies to, when it applies, what languages are involved, and what the consequences are for violating the rule. It should be explained in all employee communications, discussed in training programs and management guides and it should be posted. Employers should notify employees of the rule in both English and the language with which the employees are most comfortable. Employers should also consider a grace period before the rule becomes effective in order to ensure that employees have received actual notice of the rule.

Enforce the rule fairly.
Counsel employees when there are rule violations as opposed to automatically disciplining a violation. Enforce the rule in a manner that does not create a hostile environment.

Cite: Tran v Standard Motor Products, Inc. (DKan 1998) 74 EPD 45,621.

Source: CCH Incorporated is a leading provider of information and software for human resources, legal, accounting, health care and small business professionals. CCH offers human resource management, payroll, employment, benefits, and worker safety products and publications in print, CD, online, and via the Internet.

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