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Is it ever okay for employers to enforce an “English-only” rule?

You know that discrimination is wrong, and discrimination at work is generally illegal — but are there ever times when it’s okay for an employer to insist that an employee speak English fluently or only speak English while on the job?

Actually, yes.

It isn’t an act of discrimination to require employees to be fluent in English if that fluency is needed for an employee to be effective in a particular position. It’s also not an act of discrimination for employers to insist on an “English-only” rule at work when the rule is there in order to ensure the safety of everyone.

For example, imagine that an employer is hiring someone to take phone messages in an office. Hiring an employee who isn’t fluent in English or whose accent is so thick that it is difficult for the average individual to understand him or her would be counter-productive to the office’s needs.

Similarly, imagine that an employer runs a warehouse. There are people of various ethnic origins working in the warehouse — many of whom are operating forklifts and other dangerous equipment. Since English is the only common language that all the workers speak, an “English-only” rule on the floor is necessary for safety.

On the other hand, there’s no purpose in instituting an “English-only” rule for the janitorial staff of an office just because the office workers are uncomfortable hearing the janitors speaking in another language. Similarly, refusing to hire an employee with a soft accent that doesn’t affect his or her ability to communicate clearly in English simply because “customers would prefer someone without an accent” is also unacceptable.

Recognizing discrimination in the workplace isn’t always easy. If you believe that you’re the victim of discrimination, an attorney can discuss the situation with you and help you understand more about your options.

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