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Employment Discrimination and “English Only” Rules

Employment Discrimination and “English Only” Rules

You might have heard about workplaces in the Chicago area or in other parts of the country that have talked about—or even have implemented—so-called “English Only” rules. For employees whose first language is not English, such rules can feel discriminatory, and in many cases, they are unlawful. According to a fact sheet from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), immigrants who are required to obey “English Only” rules at their places of employment may be experiencing discrimination based on national origin.

What is National Origin Discrimination?

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employment discrimination based on national origin is prohibited. What does national origin discrimination look like in practice? As the EEOC fact sheet explains, this type of discrimination can take many different forms, including but not limited to:

  • Discrimination based on the employee’s place of birth;
  • Discrimination based on the employee’s ancestor’s place of birth;
  • Discrimination based on an employee’s association with people of a different national origin group;
  • Discrimination based on an employee’s accent;
  • Discrimination based on an employee’s ethnic appearance; and
  • Speak-English-Only rules at work.

In general, discriminating against an employee based on his or her accent, or his or her ability to speak English, will only be permitted in situations where it is necessary in order for the job to get done. For instance, if an immigrant with an accent applies for a job in customer service—which requires careful communication with customers—she cannot be discriminated against simply because she has an accent as long as she can effectively communicate with customers and be understood by those customers in English. How does this work when an employer institutes a rule that requires employees to speak only English on the job?

Are “English Only” Rules Ever Allowed at Work?

While many workplace rules requiring employees to speak only English at work are almost always going to be violations of Title VII, there are some narrow circumstances in which an employer can require employees to speak only English on the job. As the EEOC fact sheet explains, in order to have a lawful “English Only” rule, an employer must be able to show that the rule is “justified by business necessity.”

This rule must be narrowly tailored, according to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), to specifically address the business necessity. What does that mean? For instance, in the scenario we mentioned above concerning an immigrant applying for a job in customer service, if communication in English is a key element of the job, then the employer may be able to lawfully require that employees speak only English when communicating with customers. The DOL fact sheet lists the following circumstances as those in which an “English Only” rule might be upheld:

  • Required communication in English with customers, coworkers, and/or supervisors who only speak English;
  • Emergency situations in which all employees must speak English as a common language to ensure everyone’s safety;
  • Cooperative or group work assignments in which English is necessary to promote the group’s work efficiency; and
  • Assessment of an employee by an employer who speaks only English.

Outside of these circumstances, it is more likely than not that an “English Only” rule is discriminatory.

Contact a Chicago Employment Discrimination Attorney

If you work somewhere with an “English Only” rule, and English is not your first language, you may be able to file a claim for compensation. A dedicated Chicago employment discrimination lawyer can discuss your options with you. Contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Kline to seek advice from an experienced advocate.

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