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Are English-Only Policies at Work Legal?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

There's a good chance your company communicates largely in English, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should adopt an English-only policy at work.

An English-only policy tells employees that other languages can't be used in the workplace, and while it might sound intriguing, it's probably not a good idea for your business. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission generally frowns on those policies for various reasons.

If you're a monolingual English speaker, that attitude may leave you scratching your head. But there are good reasons to avoid an English-only police in the workplace.

At first glance the idea may seem innocuous. There's a good chance most of your business is done in English, your materials are written in English, and your customers speak English.

The language you do business in is one thing, but there are still many other opportunities for employees to communicate with each other and with their superiors that don't involve business.

If multiple employees speak the same non-English language, then they might be able to use it for work purposes as well. They may be more comfortable speaking in their native tongue, if English isn't their first language.

For those who speak English as a second language, an English-only policy can be a significant barrier. The EEOC's general position is that it has a disparate impact on certain minority groups.

Because of that assumption, employers have to work extra hard if they want to implement an English-only policy, reports Forbes. But it is really worth your time?

Unless having employees speak a non-English language is causing a serious problem at work, the answer probably is no. To justify the policy, you'd likely have to prove that requiring English is a business necessity.

That is possible if there are safety concerns, if customers complain about service, or if employees feel excluded or targeted based on the use of a non-English langauage. If that's happening in your workplace, you'll need to document it for later proof.

Before putting in the policy, it might help to review your situation with an attorney. You'll get a better idea as to whether your circumstances are likely to qualify as a business necessity.

Situations where English-only policies are needed are few and far between. Even if you do need a written policy, keep in mind that employees should still be allowed to use other languages during breaks.

Any policy that is exclusionary should be avoided and while it may not seem like it, an English-only policy could exclude certain employees. An open work environment means happier employees and less legal liability.

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