Requiring fluency in Spanish to get or keep a job in the United States violates the race and national origin discriminatory provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Only in some cases can an employer stipulate a fluency requirement.
Federal law bars an employer from discriminating against an employee or potential employee on the basis of age, gender, race, national origin, religion and marital and family status. National origin includes your ancestry, birthplace and culture. Discriminating against you because of the ethnicity of your last name also violates federal law. Since the language you speak is directly tied to your national origin, requiring you to speak anything else also violates federal law.
The EEOC will allow an employer to require fluency in a specific language when it is required for the “effective performance of the position for which it is imposed.” For example, a company that has many customers who only speak Spanish can legally require the employees who interact with these customers to speak Spanish. However, the EEOC cautions against uniformly applying this rule, because the degree of fluency will vary from job to job, even within the same company. Using the example of a company who has customers who speak Spanish, the company cannot legally require employees who do not interact with Spanish-speaking customers to be fluent in Spanish.
You can file a claim with the EEOC if your employer bases employment on whether you speak a certain language. The EEOC will then investigate and may even file a lawsuit against your employer. For example, in 2009, it sued Michoacan Seafood Group, LLC for firing two otherwise qualified employees who did not speak Spanish. It sought to permanently stop the company from discriminating against its employees. It also sought back wages, compensatory and punitive damages and other relief for the employees who were fired and a number of other former employees who could not speak Spanish.
During its investigation, the EEOC will consider an employer’s reasons for requiring fluency in a language such as Spanish. For example, the EEOC believes that requiring employees to speak only one language while they are at work, especially if that language is not their primary language, is discriminatory, regardless of the business reason. The EEOC may let an employer require that employees speak in a certain language, such as Spanish, at certain times during the work day, but only when justified by business necessity.
Your employer must notify you of a fluency requirement, especially when the language is not your primary language. Firing or otherwise disciplining you for not being fluent, or not offering you a job because you aren't fluent, violates federal law. An employer can face legal consequences for doing so.
- Nolo.com: Language and Accent Discrimination in the Workplace
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: EEOC Sues Houston Restaurant for Race and National Origin Discrimination
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Section 13: National Origin Discrimination
- Latin American Blog: The EEOC and ‘Language Discrimination’: Strict Language Policies May Create Problems for Employers
- State Bar of New Mexico: Common Language Policies in the Workplace -- Dangers for the Employer and Remedies for the Employee
William Henderson has been writing for newspapers, magazines and journals for more than 15 years. He served as editor of the "New England Blade" and is a former contributor to "The Advocate." His work has also appeared on The Good Men Project, Life By Me and The Huffington Post.