Many companies, particularly those employing individuals who must interact with customers, have “English-only” policies requiring workers to be fluent in English. Well, the feds just sued an employer for having such a policy. Are these kinds of edicts legal?
Yes. “English-only” policies are legal, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — but only in very limited circumstances.
The EEOC says such policies are legal if workers being fluent in English is required for:
- “the safe and effective performance of a job,” and
- “the successful operation of the employer’s business.”
The agency reiterated those rules in a statement describing a brand new lawsuit it has initiated against Wisconsin Plastics, Inc. (WPI), a Green Bay-based metal and plastic products manufacturer.
Fired despite positive evals
After failing to reach a settlement with the company through its conciliation process, the EEOC sued the employer in federal court, claiming the company illegally discriminated against a group of Hmong and Hispanic employees when it terminated them for their shortcomings when it came to speaking English.
The kicker: All of the terminated employees had received satisfactory ratings on their annual performance evaluations — which, at least according to the EEOC, proved the ability to speak English wasn’t essential to their jobs.
The EEOC is seeking lost wages and compensatory and punitive damages for the discharged employees, and injunctive relief to end the alleged discriminatory practices.
For some valuable insights into how the EEOC views “English-only” policies and when they’re legal, check out what EEOC Chicago Regional Attorney John C. Hendrickson had to say about Wisconsin Plastics and the lawsuit:
Our experience at the EEOC has been that so-called ‘English-only’ rules and requirements of English fluency are often employed to make what is really discrimination appear acceptable … But superficial appearances are not fooling anyone. When speaking English fluently is not, in fact, required for the safe and effective performance of a job, nor for the successful operation of the employer’s business, requiring employees to be fluent in English usually constitutes employment discrimination on the basis of national origin — and thus violates federal law.
What to do now
This isn’t entirely bad news for employers with similar policies and rules. The EEOC is giving you its blessing to implement them — but only if you’re able to prove that the ability to speak English is essential to performing the job at hand.
What this does not mean, however, is that company-wide “English-only” policies are OK if a certain segment of your workforce doesn’t need to speak English. Such policies must only be imposed on those whose jobs are dependent on the ability to speak English.
Example: If customer service reps need to be able to speak English, it’s not necessarily legal to impose the same English-speaking rule on warehouse employees who have no contact with customers. The rule must be applied on a case-by-case basis.