Why an “English Only” policy is prohibited in the workplace

On Behalf of | Nov 3, 2023 | Employment Law

Many people who live and work in Southern California speak a native language other than English. For most of them, speaking English is required in their job. However, that doesn’t mean they’re required to speak English every moment that they’re in their workplace.

If an employee needs or wants to speak another language when they’re on a personal phone call, at lunch, on a break or in a personal conversation with another employee, they typically can’t be prohibited from doing so. That would be discrimination based on national origin, which is illegal under state and federal law.

Many people, including some in positions of authority, think that “protected classes” like national origin only pertain to discrimination in hiring, promotion or firing or in cases of harassment. For example, an employee can’t be insulted or demeaned based on where they (or their ancestors) are from – or even where they’re perceived to be from. But, telling employees that they can only communicate in English at all times or that they can’t use their native language (or any other language), as long as it doesn’t interfere with their or anyone else’s work responsibilities is a form of discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) calls a workplace “English Only” policy “a burdensome term and condition of employment” and a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A “No Spanish” policy is basically the same thing.

When can businesses require employees to speak English?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers can require employees to use English when:

  • They’re communicating with anyone who only speaks English.
  • They’re involved in “cooperative work assignments.”
  • There’s a safety-related event or emergency.
  • Using English is necessary for a supervisor to monitor their work.

Notice that none of these reasons involves people feeling left out of personal conversations because they can’t understand what’s being said.

You may have managers or supervisors working for you who believe that when employees use another language in personal conversations, they aren’t “team players” or make people feel left out. That doesn’t give them the right to police their employees’ personal communications. Likely, these are the same employees they rely on to help them communicate with customers and vendors whose English is limited.

If you have questions about the use of a non-English language in the workplace or you’re facing a complaint from an employee whose rights may have been violated, it’s a good idea to seek legal guidance, as this concern can quickly turn contentious.


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