Compliance Partner General Language discrimi...
Language discrimination is a thing: Here’s how to avoid it
Language discrimination is a thing: Here’s how to avoid it
By Katie Loehrke
Employers know all too well the risk of a discrimination claim, particularly because of the myriad ways employees are protected. Discrimination based on the language an individual speaks or doesn’t speak (or the fluency with which he or she speaks it) may not sound like one of the protected classes you’re familiar with, but it can be illegal. Language discrimination is a type of national origin discrimination.
On requiring English
Employers may require employees to speak English to the level required by a particular job, but they must avoid broad “English-only” rules. To avoid the appearance of discrimination, a requirement for employees to speak only English in the workplace must be supported by valid business reasons.
For instance, employers can require English in the following situations:
  • When the employee needs to communicate with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who speak only English. This doesn’t mean you can require employees to speak English at all times simply because some workers don’t speak another language. You may, however, require an employee to speak English when speaking directly to an employee who speaks only English.
  • In emergencies or other situations to promote safety. A rule requiring employees to speak a common language in the event of an emergency or when performing work in a particularly dangerous area of the workplace can be acceptable.
  • For cooperative work assignments when needed to promote efficiency. Requiring investigators to speak only English when working together to compile a report, for example, would not likely be problematic.
  • To enable a supervisor who speaks only English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication in English. Requiring employees to speak only English with English-speaking coworkers and customers when a supervisor is present to monitor their work performance would be acceptable because it is narrowly tailored to promote the efficiency of business operations. The rule could not, however, apply to employees’ casual conversations when they are not performing job duties.
Note that English-only rules during employees’ breaks or meal periods will almost never be acceptable.
On accents
Like language in general, employers may not take accents into account unless they would seriously interfere with job performance. For instance, accent might matter if an employee worked in a role devoted to customer service and didn’t speak clearly enough to be understood. Note that a customer having to ask for clarification or for the employee to repeat him/herself occasionally would not seriously interfere with job performance.
An accent could also create a problem where employees needed to communicate with one another to ward off dangerous situations. However, in most cases, an employer could establish acceptable communication methods to ensure an accent did not create confusion in safety-related situations.
Other employees might have to get used to a coworker’s accent or occasionally ask him or her to repeat or explain, but such adjustments wouldn’t seriously interfere with job performance.
The fact that other employees may feel uncomfortable being around employees who are speaking languages other than English also does not justify an English-only rule.
Copyright 2017 J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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