We live, work and play in a diverse society that introduces us to many new people and new languages. Familiar to the west coast of the United States are languages such as Armenian, Hindi and Spanish. The diversity of our social population carries over into the workplace and can present challenges for employers and employees when a communication barrier occurs or a misunderstanding based on a lack of complete translation of thought (based on language differences). Diversity training which focuses on inclusion and understanding and promoting cultural difference is essential to a well-functioning work team. Equally as important is understanding or acknowledging how language impacts the work environment.
It is not uncommon for employers to ask “Can I require my employees to speak English?” It is a valid question and is usually predicated by a business need dependent upon another employee or client understanding information as it is conveyed (in writing or verbally). However, employers must be cognizant to balance the needs of the business with an employee’s right to be protected from unlawful national origin discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all applicants and employees in the United States from discrimination based on their national origin (including Americans), regardless of their place of birth, authorization to work, citizenship, or immigration status, this includes protection based on language and accent.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has published opinion memorandums with question and answer style information, such as:
Question. Is it lawful to consider language issues in the workplace?
Answer. Employers may have legitimate business reasons for making language-based employment decisions. It is important, however, to ensure that these decisions do not violate Title VII.
An employer may not base an employment decision on an accent unless the ability to communicate in spoken English is required to perform job duties effectively and the individuals’ accent materially interferes with that job performance.
A language fluency requirement is lawful if fluency is required for the effective performance of the position for which it is imposed.
A language-restrictive policy may violate Title VII if it is applied at all times in the workplace, but such a policy may be lawful in limited circumstances when needed to promote safe and efficient job performance or safe and efficient business operations. Of course, it should not be adopted for discriminatory reasons or applied in a discriminatory way. (excerpt from: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/national-origin-factsheet.cfm )
The takeaway for employers and employees is to be as inclusive as possible in the workplace, while supporting business objectives and needs. Being sensitive to language barriers and finding adequate work-around will assist to eliminate conduct that may be perceived as discriminatory.