English-only workplace policies can be discriminatory

November 11, 2019

Establishing a rule that employees can speak only English, even when not working but on premises, likely violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in that it negatively targets individuals based on their national origin.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently announced that San Antonio-based La Cantera Resort and Spa agreed to settle a national origin discrimination lawsuit brought by Spanish employees of the resort.

The $2.5 million settlement resulted from allegations that new management subjected at least 25 Hispanic banquet employees to verbal abuse and mistreatment because of their national origin, according to the EEOC.

The EEOC sued on behalf of the workers. In its complaint, the agency alleged the managers implemented and harshly enforced a policy forbidding banquet staff from speaking Spanish at any time and anywhere on the resort.

The complaint alleged that one manager referred to Spanish as a “foul language.” The manager also allegedly used derogatory terms when referring to Hispanics.

In addition to the discrimination, employees claimed they also suffered retaliation after they brought the abuse to the attention of management. Some employees were demoted or terminated. The EEOC alleged the employer replaced them with non-Hispanic employees.

In fact, the former all-Hispanic senior management team in the banquet department had no Hispanic managers at the time of the suit.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination or harassment based on race, gender, color, religion and national origin.

“English-only workplace policies can be discriminatory and foster a hostile environment when implemented with the intent to silence foreign languages in the workplace or manufacture a reason to discipline persons who are not native English speakers,” said EEOC attorney Philip Moss.

In its publication “Immigrants’ Employment Rights under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws,” the EEOC identifies discrimination related to English-only laws as one of several ways that employees can suffer illegal discrimination or harassment based on national origin.

The EEOC states it is legal to require employees to speak only English where it is necessary for the employer to operate safely and efficiently. This might include communications with customers or co-workers who speak only English, emergencies or other situations, but rarely is this justified for speaking other languages on breaks.

The EEOC also identifies discrimination based on a person’s ancestry, and due to that person’s looks, customs or language, including having characteristics that show certain characteristics particular to that ancestry.

Employers also cannot discriminate against a person based on a person’s association with individuals of a certain national origin.

Indiscriminate screening practices that are not job-related and consistent with business necessity also may trigger a violation of the law, including citizenship requirements, minimum height requirements, reliance on arrest and conviction records, and high school diploma requirements.

Of course, any ethnic slurs or verbal or physical conduct because of someone’s nationality could constitute harassment. This includes insults, taunting or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or telling someone to “go back to where you came from,” according to the EEOC.

As it relates to accent, the EEOC explains that treating employees differently due to a foreign accent is lawful only if it interferes with the person being able to do the job. This would include situations where oral communication in English is required to perform the job and the individual’s foreign accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate orally in English.

The EEOC provides examples such as teachers, customer service and telemarketing positions that would likely trigger the need for effective English-speaking skills.

Further, the law prohibits discrimination based on any national origin, including American. For example, a worker claimed that he was replaced in an IT position by someone from India and that this was intentional discrimination due to his national origin of being from the U.S.