Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Can My Employer Make Me Speak English, Even On Breaks?

I got this excellent question from flower on Ask A Manager recently:

Hi, I have a question about languages. I work in the shop as a sales assistance. I am from other country and there are working 5 more persons from the same country as me. So about 2 month ago my boss told for us that we can not speak in our language at all times even there are no customers around. Can they do that?

Thanks for asking, flower! This comes up a lot in areas, like South Florida where I live, that have a large immigrant population. Not surprisingly, EEOC has a section in its compliance manual addressing this specific issue because it is a common problem.

In general, English-only rules in the workplace are allowed if they are enacted for non-discriminatory reasons. Examples of good reasons to have English-only rules would be because customers, supervisors and coworkers speak only English; for workplace safety reasons such as emergencies where everyone needs to understand; to promote efficiency for cooperative assignments; and to allow supervisors who speak only English to monitor the employees’ communications with customers.

Examples of illegal policies would be:

• Prohibiting non-English speaking on breaks
• Subjecting speakers of foreign languages to excess scrutiny
• Prohibiting one particular foreign language from being spoken
• Requiring English-only if coworkers and customers speak multiple languages

Employers also must look at alternatives to English-only rules that might have less of a discriminatory impact. For instance, if an employee reports that two coworkers made derogatory comments about a customer in Sanskrit, disciplining the two employees would be the way to deal with the issue rather than an all-out ban on foreign languages.

Donna’s tips:

a. If your employer implements an English-only policy, the biggest question is why they did it. If they just don’t like hearing Spanish all day, too bad. That’s illegal. If there have been safety issues where an employee called out key instructions in Spanish and someone was hurt because they didn’t understand, then the employer might have a legitimate reason for the rule.

b. Sometimes having a few coworkers speaking a foreign language causes problems with other employees. Morale problems may develop as people think they’re being talked about behind their backs. This might also justify an English-only rule.

c. If you think your employer’s English-only rule discriminates against you based on national origin, it might be time to contact an employment lawyer, make a complaint of national origin discrimination with HR, or file a charge of discrimination with EEOC.

I’d love to hear from you on this. Does your employer have an English-only rule? Does it work or cause problems? If you’re an employer or management-side lawyer, have you ever implemented an English-only policy? Why did you think it was necessary? In general, do you think English-only policies should be banned or should employers be allowed to make any rules they want?


  1. Hi Donna,
    In the past, I have been hired because Iam Bilingual. But I have been told also not to speak spanish and to only speak Enlish. I than said to the manager ok I will not speak spanish but please do not ask me to translate for you, when someone does not speak English or you will have to pay me extra for my services. Was I wrong to say that?

  2. No business can say for sure they'll have English only customers except to try to order. Workplace safetyj reasons such as emergencies where everyone needs to understand can still be kept by a non-English speaking staff speaking the same language.
    In your a., The spoken Spanish was possibly not wrong, but the understanding of the request in English was not correctly understood. And your b., a person could have paranoid thoughts from whispering done in English by coworkers, no need for English only here.
    Maine spoken English to a Louisiana English speaker might be like Non-English speaking, reading and understanding English whatever the spoken languages-except to customers, is useful.


I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.