English Only in the Workplace: Dont be Sued!
There are approximately 35 million Americans that were born in foreign countries. When we compare this with the approximate 285 million Americans across the country we find that approximately 10% of all people living in this country are immigrants. That means foreign languages are a major part of our lives.
After each war new legislation is passed in order to either stem or control immigration. In 1891 the Immigration Service was established to deal with the large influx of immigrants after the Civil War. After WWI the federal government again instituted immigration quotas around 1921 to limit impoverished new comers. The 1990’s have seen the larges amount of immigration since the early 1800’s. If the statistics included illegal immigrants the number would be huge making the 1990’s an immigration free-for-all.
Many companies have begun instituting English only in the workplace. The policy change is because there are is a high level of new immigrants and nearly 11 million Americans that are not fluent in English. This creates problems for employers who must maintain productive work environments where the languages spoken on the floor are not always understood by everyone else.
The issue of an “English Only” workplace requires some type of business necessity whereupon the connection between business needs and the English language is clear. For example, when conducting their duties companies may require English to be spoken for customer service, operational and safety reasons. However, it isn’t likely that a company could show much business justification for people speaking another language on their breaks.
The amount of EEOC charges related to potential ethnic discrimination and language in the workplace is rising. In April Flushing Manor Geriatric Center was forced to pay $900,000 in a settlement after the company allowed other languages but not Creole to be spoken. They enforced a rule that Creole could not be spoken on breaks which showed discrimination towards one set of people.
The best advice someone can give a company concerning how to set up your “English Only” workplace is to draw direct lines between language and business needs. Safety, customer service, operational efficiency, and transparency are some important business reasons for having such a policy. However, a company should avoid enforcing these language restrictions on breaks, off-time, and activities that are not part of business transactions. Do not restrict one language while accepting other foreign languages or the issue becomes one of ethnicity versus consistency in the policy.