If your native language isn’t English, but your boss forbids you to speak anything else, your boss could be violating a federal law. Employees have the right to speak their native, non-English language in casual, nonwork-related conversations. English-only policies are allowed only when a business’s interests or operations make such rules necessary.
Title VII of the 964 Civil Rights Act protects your right to speak your native language in informal workplace conversations. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which regulates and enforces the law, describes an English-only rule as a “burdensome task and condition of employment.” Therefore, forbidding workers to speak their native language at lunchtime, on breaks and during recreational activities is unlawful.
The EEOC recognizes few circumstances in which English-only policies are justified. Employers are allowed a “narrowly defined” business reason for adopting such rules. Workplaces may apply English-only policies when communication is essential with coworkers, managers, customers and vendors who speak only English. The narrowly defined reason for the policy is the need to communicate with business stakeholders who speak only English.
Organizations that need a common language to relay emergency information to staff can justify an English-only policy. In emergency situations, whereby staff might be handling flammable substances or evacuating the worksite, safety is the narrowly defined reason for an English-only policy. Employers can require, say, team members on a project to speak only English so that the work is completed efficiently. In this case, efficiency is the narrowly defined reason for an English-only policy
Discrimination and Harassment
English-only policies without business necessity might be outright discriminatory. Title VII protects you against discrimination based on your national origin, which relates to your native language. A discriminatory practice would be adopting an English-only policy for the covert purpose of ridding the workplace of French-speaking employees. Applying an English-only rule to Japanese-speaking workers, for example, but not Russian-speaking workers is discriminatory.
The law also protects you from harassment based on your national origin and language. Harassment is a derogatory or offensive comment that’s usually more severe than teasing or making offhanded remarks. The EEOC investigates discrimination and harassment claims and often seeks financial settlements on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Your boss can’t discipline you for violating a justifiable English-only policy without first telling you about the rule and explaining the consequences for breaking it. If your boss’s English-only policy is not a business necessity or if it’s discriminatory, you may file a claim with the EEOC by calling 1-800-669-4000.
Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.