Although English is the language spoken by most people in the United States, many people in the United States speak languages other than English. The increasing number of Latinos and Asian Americans immigrants in the United States, especially in California, has called for the recognition and protection of language rights in the workplace. In response, California law has expressly placed limits on an employer’s ability to adopt or enforce an “English-only” policy in the workplace. An employer who merely dislikes employees speaking English, or feels that his business would “do better” if employees were required to speak only English is most likely in violation of the law. Under the provisions of the California Fair Employment Housing Act (FEHA), employers with at least five employees generally (with the exception of nonprofit religious associations or religious corporations) cannot limit or prohibit the use of any language in the workplace, unless: (1) the language restriction is justified by a business necessity; and (2) the employer notified the employees of the circumstances and time when the language restriction must be observed and of the consequences for violating it.

For the employer to show that the language restriction is a “business necessity,” it must show that: (1) the restriction is necessary for the business’ safe and efficient operation; (2) the restriction effectively fulfills the business purpose it is supposed to serve; and (3) an alternative to the language restriction would not accomplish the business purpose equally well with a lesser discriminatory impact.

Even when an employer is justified by business necessity in its adoption of an English-only policy, such a policy should not be applied to casual conversations between employees when they are not performing job duties (e.g., conversations during lunch in break rooms). An employer’s personal preference for English is not a sufficient basis for enacting an English-only policy in the workplace.

An employee who is subjected to an English-only policy at his/her workplace should explore the matter with an experienced labor and employment attorney if he/she believes the employer does not have a legitimate business necessity to support the policy. English-only policies not justified by a business necessity can amount to unlawful discrimination on the basis of national origin.