Over the last decade, as our state grows more diverse, mostly from the influx of recent immigrants, we are seeing increased number of cases of language-based discrimination, particularly in the workplace. English-only rules, accent discrimination in hiring or promotion practices, and lack of translation of safety information are some of the common complaints.
The purpose of this page is to help workers understand what workplace language rights are and how to find available resources if those rights are violated.
- What if my employer tells me that I must speak only English at work?
- What is "business necessity?"
- What if the English Only rule includes my break time and my personal phone calls?
- If a Dominican worker speaks Spanish to a fellow worker while working on an assembly line and gets fired, is this considered discrimination?
- Can English Only rules violate my right of free speech?
- What is accent discrimination?
- Where can I get help from if I am a victim of language discrimination in the workplace?
1) What if my employer tells me that I must speak only English at work?
An employer may have a rule requiring its employees to speak English at certain times if the employer can show:
- That the rule is justified by "business necessity", and
- If the employer has notified its employees of when, and under what conditions speaking English is required and of the consequences of violating the rule.
2) What is "business necessity?"
"Business necessity" is when there is an overriding legitimate business purpose to speak English. For example,"business necessity" has been found when surgery is being performed, or when a salesperson is waiting on English speaking customers. One controversial area of court decisions in this area is whether the personal preference of an employer's clients is valid "business necessity". In other words, can an employer make you speak only in English if his clients claim that they don't want you speaking another language? The courts are divided on this issue. An unbiased judge would probably rule that such preference is racist or biased and cannot form valid business necessity. Unfortunately some courts are very uninformed about this area of law or, worse yet, have anti-immigrant judges on the bench -- these courts may say that the preference of a client is perfectly valid "business necessity" even if an objective observer would disagree.
3) What if the English Only rule includes my break time and my personal phone calls?
English Only rules during break and lunch times are often illegal. The courts have generally found that no "business necessity" exists when applied to break and lunch times.
4) If a Dominican worker speaks Spanish to a fellow worker while working on an assembly line and gets fired, is this considered discrimination?
Normally, there is no "business necessity" for the worker to speak only in English while working on the assembly line, unless s/he is giving instructions to a non-Spanish speaking person. However, again, courts are sometimes hostile to language minorities and do not give them the respect and rights that they are due under federal law.
English Only rules can violate your civil righs not to be discriminated against based on ethnicity. The policy of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency designed to protect employees from discrimination, reads:
" Prohibiting employees from speaking their native language at all times in the workplace, discriminates against them on the basis of their ethnicity. It may also create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation."
5) Can English Only rules violate my right of free speech?
If, by "free speech" you mean your first amendment rights, the answer is "maybe". Your rights to freedom of speech can be legally severely curtailed at work. Normally the Constitution of the United States is only implicated if you work for a state or federal government agency which is limiting your speech. In a private workplace Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended in 1991) is what provides you protections, and it's protections are based on prohibitions against race and national origin discrimination. Title VII does not explicitly mention language rights, and so any right that you do have is generally one that flows from provisions making it illegal of employers to "haze" employees because of their race or national origin (and one element of race or national origin, under federal law, may be language). It is general Title VII and other federal laws (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866) that offers you some ability to speak in your native language in the workplace, and then, and only then, if speaking at all is a privilege that your employer grants his employees. An employer may disallow any speech other than business-related speech (no personal conversations, no talking about football, etc.). So long as he deprives everyone of personal conversations that is probably legal. When an employer deprives people of free conversation in a way that is strongly correlated with race or national origin that can be illegal.
6) What is accent discrimination?
Accent discrimination is when employers refuse to hire or promote someone because of his or her "foreign sounding" accent without legitimate reason of business necessity.
The Civil Rights of 1964 protects individuals against discrimination based on national origin. Accent and language are intertwined with national origin. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) specifically prevents employers from discriminating against job applicants who have accents or who look foreign.
7) Where can I get help from if I am a victim of language discrimination in the workplace?
Mass. Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD)
One Ashburton Place, Boston, MA 02108
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
One Congress Street, 10th floor, Boston, MA 02114
Immigrant Worker Resource Center
25 West St. Boston, MA 02111
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law,
294 Washington St., Boston, MA 02108
Chinese Progressive Association
33 Harrison Ave., Boston, MA 02111