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Watch Your Language

If you require employees to speak only English, you'd better beware of the EEOC.

English may be our nation's official language, but that doesn't mean all Americans speak it. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 32 million people over the age of 5--14 percent of all U.S. residents--speak a language other than English in their homes. And more than half the 24 million foreign-born U.S. residents speak little or no English.

These barriers pose big problems in the workplace. According to Lowell Gallaway, an economist at Ohio University in Athens, the lack of English proficiency among foreign-born U.S. workers costs employers $65 billion a year in lost productivity. And customers and co-workers often complain about employees speaking other languages, accusing them of being rude or mocking them in a language they can't understand.

In response to these problems, a growing number of employers have established policies stating that only English may be spoken on the job. By doing so, however, you risk incurring the wrath of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is opposed to English-only rules and prosecutes companies that impose them for national-origin discrimination. In general, courts have been supportive of employers' policies, as long as there's a good reason for them. In two major cases, federal courts have stated they disagree with EEOC guidelines on the matter and refuse to be ruled by them.

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.

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This article was originally published in the December 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Watch Your Language.

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