Can We Be Required To Speak English?


My manager is requiring me and another engineer to speak English in the presence of non-Russian speaking engineers on my engineering team when discussing anything work related. I work with a team of engineers and technicians and he feels it is an issue because it excludes others from the problem solving and prevents team work. Is this legal?


Wondering About The Rules


Dear Wondering About The Rules:

First I’ll give you the legal answer, based on information from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you feel there is a law violation, you should consult an attorney who can review your specific situation better than I am able to do. After the legal answer, I’ll also share some professional thoughts about the subject.

An employer can require that English be spoken in situations where a reasonable, but clear business or task need can be established. The EEO has ruled that prohibiting employees from speaking a native language at other times–lunch time or break time, for example–is almost always a violation of Civil Rights laws. (All decisions about this matter are, of course, determined on a case-by-case basis.)

It would seem that an employer could reasonably argue that engineers and technicians working on a team need to speak the same language (in this case, English) when involved in work projects. This would not only ensure that everyone is aware of all the ideas of other members of the team, but also would prevent taking the focus away from work and putting it on the different languages being used. And it would prevent the problem of having the team broken into unofficial sub-groups based on language.

As I said at the beginning, if you feel the requirement can be shown to be unfair, or if you have been ordered to not speak your native language at all, no matter what the situation, you may want to talk to HR and ask that the rule be reviewed. If that doesn’t help, you might want to talk to an attorney about it.

Now, let me also share another thought. As a result of this site, as well as my other work, I hear many, many concerns about workplace communication issues. It is very difficult to put people together, solely based on employment, and have them work effectively most of the time. Personalities, communication styles, personal habits, differing work methods, etc. etc, all create barriers. Many of these issues are not easily changed. Given that reality, it would seem a shame to add an element that creates even more barriers–especially an element that is controllable.

The recurring issue I hear about having other languages spoken is that not everyone knows what is being said–and in most workplaces people are paranoid enough that they make the assumption the conversation, laughter, and interjected remarks in another language, is about them. It’s hurtful, embarassing and frustrating, as well as being very distracting. Having any conversation going on around you when you’re working can be distracting. But when you are hearing words that capture your attention because of their uniqueness, or because you wonder what is being said, it is VERY distracting.

I can understand you and your co-worker wanting to feel comfortable by speaking your native language during break times and lunch, or when you are alone in an area. Perhaps you can plan your breaks for that purpose. But when you speak a language others in your team don’t understand, and you know they don’t understand it, it easily becomes like teenagers using Pig Latin, or talking in a code that parents can’t decipher. When that happens you will not be perceived as talking in a comfortable way that reflects your heritage, you will seem to be disrespectful of others and purposely excluding them. I think you can achieve all of your goals in this situation—being a good team member, as well as enjoying your native language. A key is to not let it become a line in the dirt, over which a conflict builds that creates negative feelings from everyone.

Best wishes with this matter.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.