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"Speak English-Only" Rule

"Speak English-Only" Rule

Background

An important part of a person's national origin is often their native language. It is not unexpected that people who have learned English as a second language are extremely fluent in English, will at times revert to their native language. When a department imposes a policy that requires employees to speak English at all times in the workplace, the rule is subject to extreme scrutiny. An employer must always provide a business justification for such a rule.

Scope

This guidance applies to civilian employees of Naval Postgraduate School, Naval Support Activity Monterey Bay, and tenant commands.

Discussion

Prohibiting employees at all times, in the workplace, from speaking their primary language or language they speak most comfortably, disadvantages an individual's employment opportunities on the basis of national origin. The EEO Commission presumes that such a rule violates Title VII. An agency may have a rule requiring that employees speak only in English at certain times where the agency can show that the rule is justified by business necessity. If the agency believes it has a business necessity for a Speak-English-only rule at certain times, the supervisor should inform its employees of the general circumstances when speaking English only is required and of the consequences of violating the rule.

Where an employee whose primary or first language is not English establishes that the agency has a Speak-English-Only rule in effect at all times, this will constitute a prima facie case of national origin discrimination. Where the "Speak English Only" rule permits the use of a foreign language during breaks and lunchtime, it will not automatically be found burdensome but will be closely scrutinized under the business necessity justification. The business purpose must be sufficiently compelling to override any racial impact; the challenged practice must effectively carry out the business purpose it is alleged to serve; and there must be available no acceptable alternative policy or practice which better accomplishes the business purpose.

Guidance

The following guidance is provided in accordance with 29 CFR 1606.7:

  • When Speak-English-only rule applies at all times. A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment. The primary language of an individual is often an essential national origin characteristic. Prohibiting employees at all times, in the workplace, from speaking their primary language or the language they speak most comfortably, disadvantages an individual=s employment opportunities on the basis of national origin. It may also creates an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation based on national origin which could result in a discriminatory working environment. The EEO Commission will presume that this rule violates Title VII and will closely scrutinize it.
  • When Speak-English-only rule applied at certain times. A department may have a rule requiring that employees speak only in English at certain times where the employer can show that the rule is justified by business necessity.
  • Notice of the Speak-English-only rule. It is common for individuals whose primary language is not English to inadvertently change from English to speaking their primary language. Therefore, if an employer believes it has a business necessity for a speak-English-only rule at certain times, the employer should inform its employees of the general circumstances when speaking only in English is required and of the consequences of violating the rule. If an employer fails to effectively notify its employees of the rule and makes an adverse employment decision against an individual based on a violation of the rule, the EEO Commission will consider the employer's application of the rule as evidence of discrimination on the basis of national origin.

In accordance with OPNAVINST 5354.1D Section VIII 1.b. :

  • Commanding Officers are responsible for promoting the morale, discipline, and effectiveness of all assigned personnel. They must ensure that all personnel can safely and effectively carry out all assigned duties. Clear and effective communication among all personnel in the command will not only enhance operational effectiveness, but also foster unit morale and cohesion. Effective communication within a department depends on smooth, orderly, and constant flow of information that is received, understood, and accepted by all.
  • Commanding Officers may issue a written oral order that only English may be spoken in the workplace. It must be clear that the purpose of such an order is to foster uniformity of action and operations within the workplace.

Policy

If your department wants to implement a Speak-English-only rule, the following procedure must be applied:

  • The department must document the policy in writing and route the memorandum through the appropriate line manager for approval. This policy can only be based on business necessity and must be specified in the memorandum.
  • This policy will not be officially implemented until the Deputy EEO Officer and the appropriate union officials and Commanding Officers has reviewed and approved the guidance.
  • Upon approval, a copy of the policy will be distributed to all employees within the department.