Rules requiring that employees speak English in the workplace at all times are generally presumed to violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nevertheless, English only policies persist and language discrimination lawsuits are on an upswing in recent years.

Recently, a San Antonio area spa agreed to pay more than $2.6 million to settle claims that it barred staff from speaking Spanish at all times on company premises. This settlement was the result of a national origin discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of at least 25 Hispanic employees.

According to the lawsuit, managers of La Cantera Resort and Spa implemented a policy forbidding banquet staff from speaking Spanish at anytime and anywhere in the resort. At least one manager allegedly referred to Spanish as “a foul language” and used derogatory terms when referring to Hispanics. When employees raised concerns about the English only policy, they were demoted or fired and replaced with non-Hispanic employees.

In addition to the $2.6 million in monetary damages and revising it’s English only policy, the spa will be required to post a notice of intent to comply with Title VII and provide training to employees regarding Title VII.

The EEOC has said that requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment and would violate Title VII. Therefore, a policy that prevented employees from speaking their native language — whether it be Spanish, German, Russian, Farsi — during break time or when employees are off-duty would be discriminatory and likely a violation of Title VII.

English only rule

However, English only rules that apply only in certain circumstances, at certain times, or to certain positions may be permissible provided they apply in very limited circumstances that are job related and justified by business necessity. Business necessity would be something like communicating with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English or in emergency situations where a common language will promote safety. It is not enough that the policy would simply promote business convenience.

Employers who are considering adopting such policies or who already have them in place should be sensitive to and understand their workforce. Increased training, especially in diversity and inclusion, is essential to ensure managers and supervisors don’t unknowingly overstep or retaliate against an employee.

No company wants to be in the position of La Cantera. Employers who are considering English only rules in the workplace should consult a trusted advisor — like NAE — before putting anything into place.