Question: I have a workforce made up of different ethnicities who speak various languages. I think we would all get along better if we all spoke English. I understand that to adopt an English only policy, there must be some business necessity. Would teamwork qualify as a business necessity?


Answer: Although teamwork may result in a more efficient workplace, an English only policy for that purpose alone would likely violate both federal and California law.

Federal law, specifically Title VII, prohibits discrimination, including discrimination based on an employee’s national origin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which enforces Title VII, provides guidance on English-only rules in the workplace. The guidance sets forth that an English-only rule must be adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons, should relate to specific circumstances in the workplace, and must be justified by business necessity, meaning it is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently.

California law not only prohibits employment discrimination, including based on national origin, but in 2001, the Legislature enacted a statute that addresses language restrictions in the workplace. It provides that it is an unlawful employment practice for an employer to adopt or enforce a policy that limits or prohibits the use of any language in any workplace unless two conditions exist: (1) the language restriction is justified by a business necessity, and (2) the employer notifies its employees of the circumstances and the time when the language restriction is required to be observed, and of the consequences for violating that restriction.

The California statute defines “business necessity” more strictly than the EEOC guidelines. In California a business necessity exists if there is an overriding legitimate business purpose and the language restriction is necessary to the safe and efficient operation of the business. The language restriction must effectively fulfill the business purpose it is supposed to serve, and there must be no alternative practice that would accomplish the business purpose equally well with a lesser discriminatory impact.

For example, one policy that would pass the California business necessity test would be an oil refinery’s rule that employees only speak English during an emergency and while performing job duties in laboratories and processing areas where there is a danger of fire or explosion, specifying that the rule does not apply to casual conversations between employees in the lab or processing areas when they are not performing a job duty. The EEOC guidelines set forth this policy as an example of a narrowly tailored rule that does not violate Title VII. It also meets the California test since it addresses both safety and efficiency. Under California law, before instituting this policy, this employer would still have to explore whether any alternative practice would accomplish the same purposes, and the employer would have to notify the employees in advance of the policy before enforcing it.
Employers can adopt rules and practices that promote teamwork and effective communication. However, before adopting an English-only policy, an employer must weigh the business justifications for the rule against its possible discriminatory effects.