Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Can you ban foreign languages in the workplace? English-only policies.

USA Today reports that Whole Foods has suspended two employees for allegedly speaking Spanish to each other on the job. For its part, Whole Foods denies the claim, and insists that it suspended the employees for “rude and disrespectful behavior.”

Regardless of who is correct, in our increasingly multi-cultural country, this story begs the questions of how, when, and why is a company permitted to limit languages spoken in the workplace.

I initially addressed this issue almost six(!) years ago in a post entitled, English-only workplaces spark lawsuits. In that post, I made the point that English-only rules are legal as long as the employer can show a business need for the policy (for example, inter-employee communication or workplace safety). An overly restrictive rule (for example, prohibiting non-English-speaking in non-work areas such as the lunchroom), however, might violate Title VII’s prohibition against national origin discrimination. You can read my original post to learn the ins and outs of this interesting and seldom litigated issue.

According to the USA Today story, Whole Foods’s “policy states that all English speaking team members must speak English to customers and other team members while on the clock” and that “team members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods, and before and after work.” To me, that policy is perfectly legal under Title VII, and should raise no issues for the employer, even if it disciplined these two employees for speaking Spanish on the shop floor.