Can My Employer Ban Me From Speaking Spanish To Co-Workers?

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An AOL Jobs reader asks:

Good afternoon, I have a question. I was just told by my supervisor that I cannot speak Spanish to my coworkers in our department. She states that some other non-Spanish speaking workers claim it makes them uncomfortable. I am asked to assist Spanish-speaking customers with no additional pay, but this is not a concern. I will certainly comply with this request, but I am not sure if it is fair or even legal. I hope you can clarify this for me. Thank you for your assistance.

I'm always surprised how many employers try to impose English-only policies or ban speaking a particular language when there are so few circumstances where such a policy would be legal. Most English-only policies at work violate the laws against national origin discrimination.

Here's what the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says about English-only policies:

[R]ules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violate the law unless they are reasonable necessary to the operation of the business.

  • A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified.
  • An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently.
  • Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include: communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
  • Even if there is a need for an English-only rule, an employer may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule and the consequences of violating it.
Some examples of how this would work would be having a rule that, in case of a workplace emergency, English only will be spoken so all employees can understand; a rule that employees may not use a non-English language to make derogatory statements about coworkers or in order to exclude coworkers; or a rule that no foreign language will be spoken in the presence of English-only speaking customers.

In this situation, your boss wants to ban Spanish at work for none of the reasons that are allowed under discrimination laws. If your Spanish-speaking coworker and you are using Spanish to isolate or exclude a coworker who doesn't speak Spanish, that might be another story. But based on what you're telling me, it sounds like this policy might be national origin discrimination.

I'd suggest contacting HR to report this national origin discrimination. Report it in writing so you have proof of what you reported. Call it "Formal Complaint Of National Origin Discrimination," and explain the new prohibition against speaking Spanish. If they won't correct the situation or if they retaliate, you should either file a Charge of Discrimination with EEOC or contact an employment lawyer in your state to discuss your rights.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.

Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.
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