ENGLISH-ONLY AND FLUENCY REQUIREMENTS FOR THE WORKPLACE « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Breaking the Language Barrier

A company catering to English-speaking clientele may implement appropriate English-only rules and language fluency requirements in the name of customer service.  However, such employers must ensure that such policies are fairly and only applied for business-based reasons.  For example, declining to hire an individual who speaks English proficiently with an unfamiliar accent might well open the company to employment discrimination claims and liability.

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin, including a person’s ancestry, birthplace, culture, or surname associated with a particular ethnicity.  As an employee’s accent is generally associated with national origin, turning down an employment application (or terminating a person’s job) on that basis alone could be unlawful.

Any workplace linguistic requirements must be truly necessary for employer’s conduct of business.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces the U.S. laws prohibiting discrimination, considers language proficiency requirements legal if such fluency is actually required to effectively perform a particular job position or skill.  Blanket fluency requirements that do not distinguish the higher proficiency skills that might apply to some jobs, for example customer service representatives, and the lower skills expected of other positions, e.g.,  warehouse workers or other manual laborers, would likely be subject to challenge.

These standards of course apply for fluency requirements in other languages. A business with a predominant number of Spanish-only speaking customers can require employees who interact with such public to speak fluent Spanish. If such employees are also expected to communicate effectively and efficiently with managers and executives who only speak English, the company could legitimately require those employees to be bilingual.

Some instances that may not be clear cut.  A manager may judge an employee’s accent to be so thick and unintelligible that it in effect amounts to an inability to speak the English customers are accustomed to speaking. Yet, if asked, many customers might disagree, claiming they can understand and converse with that worker perfectly well.  Thus, that manager’s judgment would be to some degree subjective and thus subject to discrimination charges.

For assistance in steering clear of language-based national origin discrimination at your business, contact a seasoned employment law lawyer.