The growing number of workers in the United States who speak a language other than English are presenting new challenges in the workplace and raising complex questions about discrimination based on language or national origin.
Currently, the EEOC allows limited restriction by employers on the issue of language. The EEOC specifically prohibits “English only” rules in the workplace, but does allow for some sort of language standard. For example, an employer can only require an employee to speak English if their safety depends on it, such as at a construction site, or if day-to-day aspects of the job requires use of English. Employers are encouraged but not required to translate materials like instructional manuals, and the level of accommodation for non-English speakers in general is far below that required for compliance to laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There are also other, more subtle ways that language diversity could present difficulties for both employees and employers. One employment compliance expert said that he had a client who became aware, rather late, that Mexican and Puerto Rican employees at his company were not getting along. Since he didn’t speak Spanish, he didn’t know there was a discrimination or harassment issue.
National origin discrimination issues have historically been a relatively small portion of the complaints received by the EEOC, although the rate has been rising consistently since 1997. However, many are not successful, with about 65 percent of the 11,833 claims filed in 2011 ruled to have no reasonable cause for complaint.
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Rise in multilingual employees increases ‘English only’ discrimination issues nationwide in the workplace,” Erich Schwartzel, Sept. 10, 2012.