Watch Your Language

Ethnicity and the EEOC

In this age of cultural pride, immigrants often choose to use their native language for casual conversation. At the same time, racial and ethnic tensions in the workplace have gone beyond black and white to include other minority groups. This tension can escalate when people speak in different languages. So can misunderstandings about work, safety risks, inefficiencies and the inability to communicate with supervisors.

"You need effective and immediate communication between supervisors and staff," says Rita Pando, senior attorney advisor in the EEOC's Title VII/Age Discrimination & Employment Act/Equal Pay Act Division. "For example, [when working] with dangerous equipment, people must be able to understand one another."

Nonetheless, the EEOC has taken the position that English-only rules are repugnant, especially when they're applied across the board. Prohibiting employees from speaking the language they speak most comfortably reduces the person's employment opportunities, according to EEOC guidelines on the subject, and may create an "atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation."

The EEOC distinguishes between policies that restrict conversations on or about the job to English only from those that prohibit speaking other languages at all times, including lunch time and breaks. The first kind of policy may be acceptable, but only if it's narrowly tailored, the company shows a business necessity for the rule, and it's explained clearly to employees, along with the consequences of violation. Banning foreign languages under any circumstances, however, is difficult to justify, Pando contends.

In one EEOC action, Chinese employees at two American Red Cross laboratories in Maryland were prohibited from mixing Chinese comments into their conversations during office hours and into telephone conversations to family members. The EEOC obtained a settlement providing for termination of the rule and sensitivity training for employees. In another case, a Latina employee charged that the English-only rule subjected her to unequal terms and conditions of employment. The EEOC extracted a settlement that included not only termination of the rule but also $30,000 in damages for the employee.

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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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