Protecting your rights in the workplace.

Are English-Only Workplace Rules Legal?

In an ethnically diverse state such as California, many workplaces employ individuals who speak a language other than English. While employers in California are clearly prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of the employee’s race or national origin, the law is less clear when it comes to workplace rules regarding language. So, is it legal for an employer to ban employees from speaking a language other than English in the workplace?

As stated in Government Code Section 12951(a), it is unlawful for an employer to adopt or enforce a policy that limits or prohibits the use of any language in any workplace. According to the law, an employer may enforce an English only language restriction if the restriction is justified by a business necessity, the employer has notified its employees of the language restriction, informed all employees of the circumstances under which the English-only rules will be applied, and notice of the consequences for failure to comply with the restriction.

The first requirement of Section 12951 is that the language restriction is justified by a business necessity.  However, it may be difficult to determine exactly what constitutes a business necessity. An example of a business necessity is if the job site has a high risk and the English- only policy is necessary to make certain that safety rules are uniformly followed. Dangerous job sites and situations could include: construction sites, emergency medical operating rooms, critical laboratory services, and other employment that involves serious risk or injury. A business necessity may also be found where an English-only policy would be necessary for communications with customers, co-workers, or supervisors who only speak English. However, an English-only policy should not be applied to casual conversations between employees when they are not performing job duties.

While English only language restrictions in the workplace can be a legal gray area, they may also be a veiled form of workplace discrimination. There have been several cases where employees have sued and won judgments against employers who have instituted discriminatory English-only workplace policies. If you believe that your employer has instituted an English only policy in the workplace when there is no business necessity, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney who can give you more information on the legality of English-only workplace rules.