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Why “English only” policies are a form of discrimination

On Behalf of | Jul 14, 2023 | Discrimination

Illegal workplace discrimination doesn’t necessarily have to involve being paid less or not being promoted because of some protected characteristic like race, gender or age. It doesn’t even have to involve slurs and harassment because of your identity. There are other, sometimes more subtle, ways that it can manifest.

Take national origin. Discrimination against employees based on national origin is illegal both on the federal level and under Indiana state law. “National origin” doesn’t just refer to where an employee was born. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), it can be based on an employee’s “actual or perceived place of birth, country of origin, ancestry, native language, accent, or because they are perceived as looking or sounding ‘foreign.’” 

One example of national origin discrimination in the workplace is when businesses (or their managers or supervisors) prohibit employees from using any language other than English, even when they’re not involved in a work-related conversation or interaction. Unfortunately, some workplaces even post signs that say “English only” or “No Spanish” (or other languages) or allow managers and other employees to chastise those they hear speaking their native language, even if it’s in a personal conversation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) calls this kind of policy a “burdensome term and condition of employment.”

When can you be required to use English at work?

Most workplaces need people to communicate in English when they’re doing their jobs, even if a large portion of their employees are bilingual. According to the DOL, employers can require that English be used when:

  • Employees are involved in “cooperative work assignments.”
  • Employees are communicating with others who primarily or solely speak English.
  • Safety or an emergency requires it.
  • An employee’s work needs to be monitored or assessed.

It’s important to understand your rights under the law and be able to assert them respectfully but confidently. Your employer or an immediate supervisor may not realize that they can’t implement complete prohibitions on any language besides English.

Unfortunately, when an employer prohibits using a non-English language, even in personal conversations during lunch hours or on the phone with a friend or relative, that’s often just one example of their discriminatory actions. Other types of discrimination can have a more direct effect on your ability to do your job and progress in your workplace. If you believe you’ve been the victim of discrimination, it can help to seek legal guidance to better understand your rights and options.