Monday, January 28, 2008

English-only debate is not going away

Since I last wrote on English-only workplace rules and Congress's attempt to prohibit legal challenges of them (Congress debates legality of English-only rules) the debate has continued. Yesterday, the New York Times gave its 2 cents:

Politicians like Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, have jumped into the fray. Last year, Mr. Alexander introduced legislation to prevent the [EEOC] from suing over English-only rules. After that measure died in conference committee, he introduced a similar one in December.

"This bill’s not about affecting people's lunch hour or coffee break — it's about protecting the rights of employers to ensure their employees can communicate with each other and their customers during the working hours,” he said in a recent statement. "In America, requiring English in the workplace is not discrimination; it’s common sense."

Time out, everyone. Let’s think about what really makes sense here.

Certainly, safety issues arise in some workplaces. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, requires air traffic controllers to "be able to speak English clearly enough to be understood over radios, intercoms, and similar communications equipment."

Managers may also need employees who can speak English to English-speaking customers. And they may hear complaints if English-speaking employees say they feel excluded or gossiped about when colleagues converse in another language. Such situations, in fact, gave rise to English-only rules in the first place.

The bottom line on this issue remains unchanged, and is largely grounded in common sense. English-only rules have their time and place. If you have a legitimate problem – such as safety, communication with customers, or communication among employee – such a rule will probably pass muster. If, however, you are enacting such a rule to discourage non-Americans from working at your place of business, or if the rule overreaches by banning foreign languages in non-work spaces (lunch rooms, etc.), you should prepare yourself to unsuccessfully defend a lawsuit. As long as immigration remains a hot political topic, this issue is not going away. Being smart about these rules, though, will help you from being stung by their legal traps.