Can My Employer Bar Me From Speaking Spanish At My Job And Require Me To Only Speak English?
Given the diversity in California’s workforce and the number of employees who speak Spanish, employer language restrictions are a major concern for many who work and live in our state. Many Spanish-speaking workers may speak and understand English, but prefer to speak in Spanish, especially when talking to other workers who speak this language too or on their breaks. Keeping their jobs could be difficult if their employers enforce an English-only speaking policy. Is this legal under California law?
Can Your Employer Prohibit You From Speaking Spanish at Your Job?
Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and federal law, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on his native language or manner of speech, such as accent, size of his vocabulary, and syntax. This is known as illegal language discrimination and is a form of discrimination against a person based on his national origin. This means that in many cases your employer cannot enforce a blanket English-only rule that requires you to speak English at work at all times.
A prohibition against speaking any Spanish at work can constitute discrimination if it is imposed against workers who speak only Spanish or a little English, especially if they can show that they can perform their job without speaking English. In addition, a prohibition against speaking Spanish to co-workers while an employee is on a break or lunch hour would most likely constitute a violation FEHA.
Similarly, an employer’s enforcement of such a policy could create a hostile work environment if the manner of enforcement is unreasonable. Examples of this would be disciplining workers for speaking a few words of Spanish or during their breaks with co-workers. English-only speaking rules can also be illegal if they are enforced only against one minority. For example, if Chinese-speaking workers are permitted to speak Chinese, but Spanish speaking workers are prohibited from speaking Spanish, this could be illegal.
Can an Employer Ever Ban Speaking Spanish at a Workplace?
There are certain situations when it is legal for an employer to have a blanket English-only language restriction. Such a policy could be legal if the employer can show the following:
- The employer can show a business necessity for the rule—an overriding and clearly job-related reason for the rule; and
- The employer notifies employees of this policy and when and where the rules apply; and
- The employer can show that there is no other alternative practice that would achieve the intended business goals as effectively.
Can Your Employer Treat You Differently Due to Your Accent or Level of English Proficiency?
In general, treating an employee differently due to her accent or level of English proficiency constitutes illegal discrimination. Your employer can only treat you differently due to your Spanish accent if your employer can show that your accent has a significant negative effect on your ability to do your job. An employer can only treat an employee differently if these two conditions are met:
- The job actually requires some English language proficiency, such as a customer service position.
- The person does not possess the type and level of English speaking proficiency required.
What Can You Do If You Believe Your Employer Is Violating Your Rights to Speak Spanish?
If your employer employs five employees or more, you can file a complaint for violation of the FEHA with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) within one year of your employer’s discriminatory action. You can also file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 300 days of the date of the discrimination if your employer employees at least 15 employees. You must file an administrative complaint within these strict time periods in order to have a right to sue your employer.
It is always best to first hire an experienced employment discrimination attorney before filing your administrative complaint. He can help you build your case and draft your complaint to list all of the discriminatory actions of your employer. Fill out our firm’s online form or start an online chat to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.