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Is your English-only policy open for misinterpretation?
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This story appears in the June 2007 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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It can be unsettling to walk through your workplace and hear people chatting away in a language you don't know. What--or who--are they talking about? How is this affecting other employees' morale? Some employers have made rules stating that only English may be spoken in their workplace. But such rules have to be written carefully or they'll likely get you in trouble for illegal discrimination on the basis of national origin.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes a dim view of English-only rules, especially when applied across the board--for instance, even when employees are on break. However, judges in several key cases have backed employers, especially if there is a legitimate business reason for the rule, such as safety when working around dangerous machinery, for example.

To avoid the hassle of an EEOC claim, be careful to draft your policy narrowly. For instance, you might require that English be spoken while employees are performing a job duty and during an emergency, but not in casual conversations or during breaks. Or you can require English for those dealing with customers (unless the customer would benefit from assistance in the other language). Balance your business objectives against the possibility of discrimination.

Jane Easter Bahls is a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.

Edition: May 2017

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