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Bilingual Job Requirement OK’ed by Court

Here’s an interesting twist on a question we get all the time. We’re often asked, “Can I have an English-only rule in the workplace?” The answer is generally no, unless there are very strong business reasons dictating it. In this case, the question was, “Can I require a bilingual workforce?” The court said the answer was yes. Read on to find out why.

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¿Habla usted Espanol?
Do you speak Spanish? That was essentially the question Kare Distribution asked Lee Church, a sales representative who had begun working for the company on June 23, 2004. A few months later, Kare executives decided that because the company’s target market was largely bilingual, it would hire only sales representatives who were bilingual in English and Spanish.

In fact, Kare advertised job openings in the Houston Chronicle for English- and Spanish-speaking sales reps. For incumbent employees who didn’t speak Spanish (like Church), the company offered Spanish classes.

¡Queda usted despedido!
Ultimately, on November 3, Kare fired Church. He then claimed that he was a victim of discrimination. Why? Well, he argued, because Kare decided to replace non-Spanish-speaking employees with bilingual English- and Spanish-speaking sales representatives. The trial court threw out Church’s claim, and the federal court of appeals covering Texas said basically, “Lo siento, pero usted no està de suerte.”

Why was that the case? The court said there was no evidence that Kare implemented its bilingual requirements as a cover-up for unlawful discrimination. In other words, the company wasn’t motivated to discriminate against Anglos by imposing the bilingual requirement. There was no evidence of unlawful motivation — in fact, the evidence was to the contrary, considering Kare offered company-sponsored Spanish courses. Under the new policy, everyone, no matter what their race, ethnicity, or national origin, needed to know Spanish to fulfill the job requirements. The converse was equally true: Native Spanish speakers needed to know English to fulfill the job requirements.

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¿Què quiere decirlo?
Here are some take-home points. First, Kare Distribution was able to promulgate its language rule because it had a concrete and justifiable business need. Had its purported need for bilingual employees simply been a smoke screen for discriminatory decisionmaking, the result would have been different. But the evidence was all to the contrary.

It was also crucial to the company’s defense that native Spanish speakers had to know English to fulfill the job requirements. (Although if I was representing Church, I might have argued that most, if not all, Spanish speakers at Kare already spoke English, but that few, if any, English speakers already spoke Spanish.)

Still, proceed cautiously in this area. One case doesn’t give you a blanket right to impose language requirements in the workplace, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) looks at these cases very carefully.