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National Origin Discrimination and English-Language Only Rules

The immigrant population in the United States is growing increasingly large, and for many immigrants, English is not a first language. One reaction to the nation's increasing cultural and lingual diversity in the workplace is the emergence of English-only rules requiring employees to speak only English on the job. Such rules are disfavored by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces federal anti-discrimination laws in the employment setting. Judicial decisions on the subject have gone in different directions, making it difficult for employees and employers to understand the current state of the law. 

Language Rules as a Form of Discrimination

The troubling aspect of English-only rules is that they are hard to distinguish from acts of discrimination against individuals whose cultural background does not include the English language. The civil rights laws, in particular Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ban employment discrimination based on national origin. Yet, an employer can essentially engage in such discrimination by banning all languages other than English, and by punishing any employee who violates the ban. That is because chances are extremely high that the only individuals charged with violating English-only rules will be immigrants.

The EEOC and English-Only Rules

To combat national origin discrimination that can occur through English-only rules, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) passed regulations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These regulations recognize that an individual's primary language is often an essential national origin characteristic. These regulations first address English-only rules that are in effect in the workplace at all times. By preventing an employee, at any time, from using the language with which he or she is most comfortable, the employer is placing that individual at a disadvantage concerning employment opportunities.  Employers may also create an atmosphere of isolation, inferiority, and intimidation that leads to discrimination in the work environment.  Consequently, full time English-only rules are presumed to violate Title VII by limiting employment opportunities and creating a discriminatory environment based on national origin. 

An English-only rule that is in effect only at certain times is permissible when the employer can demonstrate a business necessity for the rule.  An example might be a paid speaking position, such as a radio disk jockey, where the employer is specifically seeking to reach an English speaking audience.  EEOC regulations also require that an employer give notice to employees before implementing an English-only rule pursuant to business necessity.  If the employer fails to do this, and fires an employee for violating the rule, the commission will consider the employer's actions evidence of national origin discrimination.

Court Decisions and State Law

EEOC regulations take a strong position disfavoring English-only rules. In turn, a number of courts following those regulations have tended to favor plaintiffs who have been fired for violating such rules. Still other courts have stated that EEOC regulations contradict Congress's intent, finding that Congress never meant to address English-only rules in Title VII (the basis for EEOC regulations).  These courts have therefore denied claims by workers fired under English-only rules.

Like the courts, states are divided on the English-only question. Some states have moved in the direction of accommodating languages other than English. For example, several states have passed bills to help non-English speakers pursue government benefits. Others have moved in the opposite direction, making English the official language of the state and fighting efforts to be more inclusive.

Legal Help with English-Only Rules and National Origin Discrimination

English-only rules create divisiveness in the workplace by prohibiting a portion of the workforce from expressing their cultural identity.  Blanket rules, effective at all times, are especially harsh, suggesting something inferior or subversive in other languages and the people who speak them; these rules are presumptively invalid.  English-only rules applicable in limited circumstances may be acceptable, as long as they are not a pretext for discrimination based on national origin. If you have questions about English-only rules in your workplace, or if you believe that you or a loved one have suffered national origin discrimination on the job, contact an employee rights attorney to discuss your situation and protect your legal rights.

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