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English-Only Rules Can Create a Hostile Work Environment

A diverse workforce is one of the cornerstones of American life. This nation has grown and prospered through the hard work, innovation, and creativity of a diverse population of immigrants. Yet, as the United States stands today, 45 million workforce members have a language other than English as their primary language. Moreover, according to The American Bar Association, 10.3 million of the workforce speak little to no English, yet companies have begun enacting English-only policies. 

What Is an English-Only Rule?

An English-only rule is a policy enacted by companies that require all employees to speak English during their working hours. Some guidelines need English to be said during specific tasks or when interacting with the public. Other policies levy a complete prohibition on languages other than English in the workplace. Some companies have argued that English-only approaches promote teamwork and togetherness, allowing workers to interact in only a shared language. However, such policies may do the opposite. Furthermore, English-only policies can create an embarrassing, complex, and hostile work environment for those who have difficulty conversing effectively in English or for those in which an alternative language is more comfortable and natural.

Are English-Only Policies Legal?

While the EEOC agrees that English-only rules may have some substance when associated with specific tasks, rules and policies that require employees to speak only English at all times, including breaks and lunch, violate EEOC regulations and laws. For example, an employer may enact English-only rules when the safety of an entire team relies on communication in a common language or for customer-facing employees in a predominantly English-speaking location. English-only rules may also be implemented in shared projects where the only common language is English.

Aside from violating EEOC standards, an English-only rule may create a hostile work environment and cause some employees to feel discriminated against or penalized for being a non-native English speakers. Racial and ethnic hostility remains a problem in many fields, and federal courts have found, in the past, that blanket English-only policies can be aligned with other forms of ethnic or racial hostility. Therefore, blanked English-only policies, or policies requiring employees to conduct all conversations, including break time conversaconversationslish, are discriminatory.

Best Practices

Language policies should be carefully crafted to avoid blanket statements. All employees must be informed of the language policy, and regular check-ins regarding the policy should be required. It is best to utilize English-only policies only in cases where Non-English communication could impede the business's ability to communicate with its client base or in situations where communication in a common language is paramount to the safety of the entire team. English-only policies should never be extended to break times and lunch hours. These non-working hours do not affect business protocol, and employees should be free to converse with friends and co-workers in languages they feel most comfortable with. 

If you have complaints or concerns about using a particular language in your workplace, please reach out to help determine where your obligations to investigate and manage settle.

Cite this article: Lynch, N. (2017). English-Only Rules Can Create a Hostile Work Environment. Available:

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