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Can Employers Implement an English-Only Requirement? February 11, 2019

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Can Employers Implement an English-Only Requirement?, Middletown, New York

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned workplace discrimination on the grounds of race, national origin, color, religion, or sex. Although this act paved the way for equality, its terms are subject to interpretation. There are contentious debates about whether implementing English-only or fluency requirements are discriminatory under employment law, for example. Many argue that these preconditions constitute bias against national origin, while others assert that speaking English is essential for doing business in this country. Whether you’re an employer or a job seeker, learn more about the rights and protections surrounding this area of labor law below. 

What You Need to Know About Workplace Language Requirements

When Are Language Requirements Discriminatory?

Employers can’t use language requirements or limits as a cover for discriminatory intent. If an employer bans Spanish at work solely because they don’t want to hire Hispanics, for instance, they’re violating the law.  

Blanket company-wide language rules are also often considered discriminatory. While it may be necessary for certain employees to speak English, there are typically other positions at any given entity that don’t require fluency for satisfactory and safe fulfillment of job duties. Employers also often can’t enact general policies across entire departments. 

Rules that prohibit employees from using a foreign language while on break, or from conversing with customers who speak their native tongue, may be considered discriminatory if they’re inconsistently enforced or created with a biased motive. Speaking English with an accent also generally won’t be lawful basis to turn down an applicant or deny promotion. 

When Are Language Requirements Legal?

employment law

Employers may lawfully enact language requirements if fluency is critical to the job responsibilities or would negatively impact staff safety. In many instances, however, alternative communication systems can be devised. There are no Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) rules that training and communication must occur in English on construction sites, for example. 

It’s also legal for employers to test a potential employee’s English proficiency; however, they must administer the test to all candidates for the position. Additionally, they can’t deny work based on the results of such a test without a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. In other words, they must demonstrate that higher proficiency is required to complete the duties of the position.

Lastly, if the company can establish that an accent impedes the clarity of communication and interferes with job performance or safety, they may be able to lawfully make hiring or promotion decisions on this basis under employment law. 


If you suspect you were the victim of workplace discrimination, turn to the employment law team at MacVean, Lewis, Sherwin & McDermott, P.C. Located in Middletown, NY, they’re one of the oldest firms in Hudson Valley. For more than 130 years, their seasoned attorneys have been providing comprehensive counsel in a variety of legal areas, including labor and corporate law. To learn how they’ll assist with your employment law case, visit their website. To request a free consultation, call (845) 343-3000.

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