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Take care when implementing workplace English-language policies

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Use caution when adopting “English only” language policies in your workplace. Employers that want to implement a language policy should be prepared to provide evidence that its purpose is more than a personal preference on the part of the manager or business owner.

Although there are certainly situations in which employers may appropriately require that employees know and speak English, employers could run afoul of the law by applying a blanket policy.

Written and spoken business communications and giving or understanding instructions are certainly business reasons to require an employee to use English. However, requiring employees to only use English in the workplace could be deemed a discriminatory practice if employees are asked to refrain from speaking another language during breaks or when having a one-on-one conversation with an individual who speaks another language.

Below are a few examples where an English-only language policy could face a legal challenge:

  • Two employees pass each other in the hallway during the business day. They stop and share a brief exchange in a language other than English.
  • A small group of women eat lunch together in the breakroom and speak Farsi exclusively.
  • An English fluency test is given to all employees regardless of whether their position is in Accounting, Customer Service or Housekeeping.

Even if there is a need for an English-only rule, an employer may not discipline an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule, and explained it as well as the consequences for violating it.

This is true of almost all company policies, so employers should be sure that their workplace policies and rules are clearly communicated to employers through an Employee Handbook or other formal company communication.

Do you need to discuss a language policy or other HR matter for your business? Do you have questions about how to handle a particular situation? Contact the experts at BCN Services and we can help you through that process. Call 800-891-9911 or email