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When can companies require employees to speak English?

On Behalf of | Dec 8, 2022 | Employment Law

National origin is a protected employment class under both federal law and Colorado law. As most employers know, that means it’s illegal to discriminate against an employee or applicant because of where they, their parents or their ancestors are from.

What some employers don’t realize is that this protection means employees can’t be prohibited from speaking their native language (or any other language) in the workplace as long as it doesn’t affect their work or anyone else’s.

What does the U.S. Department of Labor say about workplace language requirements?

Of course, in most workplaces in the U.S., English needs to be the primary spoken and written language. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) allows employers to mandate that employees communicate in English:  

  • When they’re communicating with others (including employees and customers) who speak English 
  • When they’re engaged in “cooperative work assignments” 
  • During emergencies or other safety-related situations 
  • When a supervisor needs to monitor or assess their work 

Further, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that an “English only” policy (or a policy prohibiting the speaking of any particular language) is “a burdensome term and condition of employment.”

That means if someone is having a personal phone conversation with a grandparent in Spanish during a break or two colleagues are conversing in Hindi in the lunchroom, they can’t be told to switch to English or penalized for not speaking English. 

It’s important to remember that workplaces typically benefit from a diverse workforce. That includes a staff that speaks multiple languages. Managers often call on their team members who speak fluent Spanish or another language to help customers who speak little or no English. 

It’s crucial for everyone in supervisory or Human Resources positions in your company to understand the law and help ensure that it’s enforced (and understood by all employees). If you have questions or are looking at a potential discrimination lawsuit, it’s wise to seek legal guidance.