A record damage award levied against a telephone company that tried to prevent operators from speaking Spanish to each other in the workplace underscores the risks of enforcing English-only policies. Faced with this increasingly common type of bias case, a federal court has concluded that the language restriction amounted to illegal discrimination based on national origin.
Policy Applied Even During Breaks
Premier Operator Services in Dallas hired 13 Hispanic workers to handle collect calls from Mexico because of their Spanish-language abilities. However, the company didn’t want them to speak Spanish to each other, even during breaks.
To emphasize its seriousness about the foreign-language ban, the company posted a notice concerning the restriction on the same sign that also warned workers not to bring weapons onto the premises. And employees were asked to sign a statement pledging that they would abide by the policy.
400+ pages of state-specific, easy-read reference materials at your fingertips—fully updated! Check out the Guide to Employment Law for California Employers and get up to speed on everything you need to know.
All 13 Spanish-speaking employees refused to sign and were fired. The workers then complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigated and filed suit against Premier.
Employer Claims Rule Promoted Harmony
Premier argued that the language policy was good for workplace relations. But the EEOC took the position that the restrictions violated the civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination based on national origin. According to the EEOC, requiring that only English be spoken at all times in the workplace can engender feelings of inferiority, isolation and intimidation that may result in a discriminatory work environment.
Employees Awarded Back Pay, Punitive Damages
The court agreed with the EEOC and awarded the workers a total of $709,284 in damages, the largest amount the EEOC says it has ever obtained for an English-only violation. The workers were to divide up a back-pay award of $59,000, and each of them was to receive $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
When English-Only Rules Are Permitted
EEOC guidelines say that an English-only rule that applies at all times in the workplace is presumed to be discriminatory, and the reasons for it will be very closely scrutinized.
But in another case, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers California, rejected the EEOC guidelines. The court ruled that employers have the right to control conversation on the job and can require employees to speak English while working. But you can still get into serious trouble if you try to enforce English-only rules during break times or among workers who can’t speak English.
Justifying Language Restrictions
You can reduce the risk of a challenge to an English-only policy in your workplace by taking these steps:
- Document rationale. It’s a good idea to document your reasons for restricting the use of foreign languages, such as the need for customers to understand employees on duty in a service center or the safety of co-workers or the public.
- Notify workers. Make sure that employees are aware of the policy and the consequences of not complying.
- Limit restrictions. The policy should only be enforced during on-duty hours. English-only rules that apply during breaks are much more likely to be challenged.