Here in South Florida, many residents are not native English speakers. In the workplace, however, many employers require employees to speak English, which can become an employment law problem.

As a recent Forbes column discussed, English-only workplace policies may be implemented in some cases for business purposes, but in many cases they may be discriminatory–and thus, in violation of federal law.

While this is a complicated issue, in general, English-only policies are legal only if they can be justified as a business necessity. For example, an employer may be able to reasonably conclude that English is necessary in the workplace for communications involving supervisors, customers and co-workers who only speak English. Additionally, English may be required for written work assignments, in order to enhance efficiency.

However, even in workplaces where English is implemented as the language of business, it would likely be an illegal form of employment discrimination if an employer were to bar employees from having casual conversations in other languages when they are not performing job duties. This is because an English-only policy in these situations would only affect certain minority groups, unfairly burdening national origin minority groups by not allowing them to communicate in the language in which they best express themselves.

In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has pursued several discrimination cases in recent years against employers who had such policies. In one case, a hospital recently agreed to pay a $975,000 settlement after the EEOC accused it of having an English-only policy that applied only to Filipino-American staff.

While it may be difficult for monolingual, native English speaking employers to understand, English-only policies can be impractical, unnecessary and discriminatory. When Florida employers do implement English-only policies for business purposes, they would be wise to do so under the guidance of legal counsel to ensure the policies do not violate workers’ rights. Workers whose rights have been violated may seek legal recourse.

Source: Forbes, “English-Only Policies in the Workplace: Are They Legal? Are They Smart?” Richard Tuschman, Nov. 15, 2012