Speaking Other Languages to Customers


Your employer generally CAN require you to speak in a different language to customers if it would make the customer feel more comfortable.  This is considered a ‘customer preference’ and since it is connected to the business (i.e. the customer’s ability to communicate their needs effectively), this will most likely be allowed.

Requiring you to speak English to your co-workers, however, may violate the law.  The EEOC Guidelines, 29 C.F.R. 1606.7, state that blanket English-only policies are presumed to violate Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin.  As the guidelines state:

A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the work place is a burdensome term and condition of employment. The primary language of an individual is often an essential national origin characteristic. Prohibiting employees at all times, in the workplace, from speaking their primary language or the language they speak most comfortably, disadvantages an individual’s employment opportunities on the basis of national origin. It may also create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation based on national origin which could result in a discriminatory working environment. Therefore, the Commission will presume that such a rule violates Title VII and will closely scrutinize it.
There are two exceptions, however, that may make an English-only policy acceptable.  One of these exceptions is if the employer can show that the policy is necessary for safety reasons.  The second exception is when there is a legitimate business reason for the rule (such as the need to supervise employees).  Neither exception will make an English-only policy acceptable in all circumstances.  The exceptions will not apply, for example, when employees are on break, in the lunchroom, or conversing before or after work.

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