Have To Speak Only English

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about language:
I was told today by my boss I can not longer speak Spanish with my coworker because it make my Non-Spanish speaking coworkers uncomfortable. I can only speak Spanish in my breaks is that Legal for them to make me speak only English just because they do not feel comfortable?
Is it Legal to Have an English-Only Workplace?
Dear Uncomfortable:
We have gotten questions such as your as you might see in our Archives. No more complete and understanding of your discomfort can be read in the following answer by Associate Workplace Doctor Tina Lewis Rowe. It is copied below. Please let us know if you feel it speaks to you.
As always, we’ll state that we are not attorneys and do not have special training in this area of employment law. However, having said that, we can give you our opinion, based on research. Yes, your employer can require English to be spoken in the workplace if you are allowed to speak Spanish with your Spanish-speaking coworkers in casual settings such as breaks. An attorney may tell you differently and you may wish to pursue the matter that way, but it sounds as though your employer is being reasonable about when you can use each language and is not prohibiting you from being relaxed on breaks.
According to the EEOC, the following are some situations in which business necessity would justify an English-only workplace rule:
• For communications with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English
• In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety
• For cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency
• To enable a supervisor who only speaks English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with coworkers or customers.
• When having more than one language spoken for non-business purposes is disruptive to the maintenance of an effective workplace.
• There could be exceptions, but they would be considered on a case by case basis. A very tough way to look at it is that you are being paid to work, not to talk to friends about non-work matters, so there would be no reason to speak Spanish except at breaks when you can have casual conversations.
• Another way to look at it is that if you want to be a productive and effective member of the workplace, you will be able to achieve that easier when you are not perceived as being discourteous or trying to exclude others–or talk about them without them knowing about it. You may not intend it that way, but that is the way it will always be seen. And I would bet some of your conversations are of a nature you would not want to have translated exactly. (Just human nature!)
• From an employer’s viewpoint, one reason to have an English-only workplace is that any conversation can be distracting, but a conversation in another language cannot be ignored—it catches the attention and keeps it. So, it becomes a very big distraction.
• I can understand the comfort level of being able to speak in your first language–and apparently your employer can as well, which is why you have been approved to speak Spanish during break times. Probably your company’s legal advisers have suggested it, with the intention of fulfilling any EEOC requirements for workplaces with bilingual employees.
• If you never realized there were concerns about you speaking Spanish, you can use this as a way to tell coworkers and your boss that you didn’t realize anyone was made uncomfortable and that was not your intention–and that you will certainly comply with the direction. If you have been aware of the concerns but continued to speak Spanish anyway, you may want to still express that you weren’t aware of how much of a problem it was. The reality is that you apparently will continue working there and it will be better if you can work with everyone without conflict–and with a reputation for being cooperative and friendly. I hope your Spanish-speaking friend (s) will take the same approach and will not ruin your break times with unhappiness over this situation. Unless it’s worth changing jobs over, it’s better to treat it as a job requirement that can be tolerated—and maybe one day the situation will change.
• Best wishes to you with this matter.
–Tina Rowe

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