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English-Only Policies Require Business Necessity and Proper Procedures

By Howard M. Bloom
  • May 26, 2004

With an increasing number of multi-lingual employees in the workforce, Massachusetts employers should be aware of the guidelines for and possible consequences of implementing and enforcing English-only policies. A recent Massachusetts federal court decision examined an English-only policy and has provided a good roadmap for employers.  

In Cosme v. The Salvation Army, 284 F.Supp.2d 229 (D. Mass. 2003), the employer's policy required employees to speak English, to the best of their ability, when in the workplace, except during breaks and meal periods, and before and after shifts. The policy did not apply when employees conversed in nonworking areas, such as the lunch room, break room, and restrooms, and when employees spoke with customers in other languages understood by both the customer and the employee.  

In its ruling, the court noted the employer had provided proper notice of the policy by including it in the employee handbook. Additionally, the court commented the employer had demonstrated legitimate business reasons for the policy: promoting workplace harmony by ensuring that employees are able to communicate with customers, co-workers and supervisors; helping managers monitor employees; and improving productivity and efficiency. The court also held that the policy did not, in and of itself, constitute discrimination or disparate treatment for bilingual employees.  

Additionally, Massachusetts employers should pay attention to the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on such policies. The EEOC presumes that policies requiring employees to speak English at all times in the workplace violate Title VII, and the Commission closely scrutinizes such policies. Nevertheless, according to the EEOC, employers may require that employees speak only English at certain times if justified by business necessity: communicating with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who speak only English; promoting safety in emergency situations when speaking a common language is necessary; promoting efficiency in cooperative work assignments; and enabling a supervisor who speaks only English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with customers or coworkers, to name a few.  

If an employer determines that it has a business necessity for instituting an English-only policy, the employer should inform its employees of the policy and the consequences of violating the policy. The EEOC considers an employer's failure to notify its employees of the policy and then to take adverse employment action against an employee for violating the policy evidence of national origin discrimination.  

The cost to an employer for instituting an unlawful English-only policy can be high. Recent examples include the settlement of an EEOC lawsuit on behalf of housekeepers at a Colorado casino for $1.5 million and a class action lawsuit on behalf of 18 Hispanic housekeepers at a private university in Texas for $2.44 million.

©2004 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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