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Can your employer prohibit you from speaking another language?

Under both federal and state law, employers are prohibited from discriminating against people based on their national origin. This prohibition includes not just discrimination against anyone born outside the U.S. According to the Department of Labor (DOL), national origin discrimination includes unfavorable treatment because of a person’s “actual or perceived place of birth, country of origin, ancestry, native language, accent or because they are perceived as looking or sounding ‘foreign.’”

National origin discrimination (like all discrimination) can take many forms. It’s not just an employer refusing to hire people whose parents or grandparents immigrated to the U.S. or co-workers using slurs or making “jokes” about people of a particular ancestry. It can also take the form of “English only” or “No Spanish” (or other language) requirements.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t be required to speak English throughout most of your workday. In most Indiana workplaces, the primary (if not the only) language used to communicate with customers and co-workers is English. However, anti-language policies are prohibited under a variety of circumstances.

When can your employer require you to use English?

The DOL gives employers the right to require employees to communicate in English when:

  • They’re communicating with others who only (or primarily) speak English
  • They’re involved in “cooperative work assignments”
  • A supervisor needs to assess or monitor their work
  • There’s a safety-related or emergency event

What employers cannot do is prohibit employees from speaking whatever language they choose when they’re engaged in a personal conversation – with another employee or perhaps on the phone with a family member or friend. That means no one can walk up to you in the lunchroom while you’re having lunch with a co-worker and say, “Speak English!” just because it bothers them that they can’t understand you. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said that this kind of policy is a “burdensome term and condition of employment.”

Don’t assume that your employer knows the law – or that they’re interested in following it if they do. If your employer still has a mindset that no one should be heard speaking anything other than English at any time, it’s important to know what your rights are and to be able to assert them respectfully and knowledgeably. Chances are that if your employer has an “English only” policy, that’s not the only form of discrimination going on in your workplace. It can help to know what your legal options are as a result.