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Is an “English only” workplace policy legal?

On Behalf of | Feb 16, 2023 | Workplace Discrimination |

National origin is one of the categories that’s protected against employment discrimination under both federal law and Michigan law. That means it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against employees or applicants on that basis. 

It’s important for employees to understand that discrimination based on national origin doesn’t just mean that you weren’t hired or were fired because you weren’t born in the U.S. or maybe even because of where your ancestors were born.

Another way that employers discriminate illegally based on national origin is by requiring employees to speak English at all times – even when they’re having personal conversations during breaks, on your lunch hour or maybe even on the phone with a family member. Often these “English only” rules are not written down or even discussed openly. 

What does an English-only policy look like?

If a manager or co-worker walks by two employees having a conversation in the lunch room in their native language or another language they’re both comfortable with and says, “Speak English,” that cannot be condoned – even if someone claims to be “just joking.” A “No Spanish” or similar policy – codified or not – is also discriminatory

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a workplace policy that requires employees to speak English whenever they’re in the workplace is a “burdensome” employment condition that’s “presumed to violate Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act.

When can an employer require employees to speak English?

The U.S. Department of Labor specifies times when an employer can legally require workers to speak English. These are:

  • When communicating with those (employees, customers and others) who only speak English
  • During “cooperative work assignments” like group projects or meetings
  • When an employer needs to monitor or review a person’s performance
  • In safety-related situations and emergencies when everyone has to understand what’s being communicated

Michigan employers benefit from having a diverse workforce. Unfortunately, not all employers appreciate that. If you’re facing the kind of discrimination described here and you haven’t been able to resolve the situation with your employer – or if they retaliated against you because you spoke up, don’t hesitate to find out what your legal options are.


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