Can You Be Forced to Speak English at Work?

Some businesses catering to English speaking people may have requested that their employees not speak Spanish or Chinese while at work. Is this directive legal? Is it workplace discrimination?

Example Situation:

I work for a large store and there was a notice posted recently stating that, while at work, everyone must speak only English and no other language. Is this a legal request?

Legal Analysis and Answer:

Employer rules that require only English is to be spoken at work will be scrutinized by the courts to ensure that they are not in breach of any employment discrimination laws. While there is a strong link between our language and our nationality, such rules may be considered discriminatory based on national origin. Forbidding employees to speak Spanish at work may be considered workplace discrimination.

With regard to the general operation of the business, an employer must prove that it is necessary for the viability of the business for all employees to speak only English. Examples include (i) safety reasons, where the operation of machinery would mandate that all employees are able to understand each other without hesitation, (ii) comfort of employees, where all co-workers can understand each other using one language and don’t feel uncomfortable, and (iii) practicality, where virtually all the customers of the business only speak English.

Despite these examples where the requirement to speak English might be considered legal and understandable, employers are not allowed to adopt policies that are too broad, no matter what reason they have for introducing them. For example, an employer can request that employees speak English while speaking to customers. However, the employer cannot force them to speak English while they are on their breaks and having a private discussion or if they are making a personal phone call and prefer to speak in another language, such as Spanish.

Michael M Wechsler, Esq.

Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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