Ask the Experts: Speaking English in the Office

Question: Our workplace is primarily English speaking with some employees who also speak Spanish. We’ve had complaints of employees speaking only Spanish in the breakroom. Can we request that employees speak only English in the workplace, including the breakroom?

Answer: No. It is not advisable to implement an English-only policy in your workplace. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace, including the breakroom, violates Title VII, which protects against employment discrimination on the basis of national origin. The one exception the EEOC offers regarding such a requirement is that an English-only restriction could be permissible if the employer can demonstrate it is justified by business necessity. For example, an English-only rule in a safety sensitive area may be necessary for the workplace so employees may operate safely and efficiently.

The EEOC offers the following specific guidance regarding English-only rules:

  • A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified.
  • Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include: communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.

Even if you find that there is a need for an English-only rule, employers may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule and the consequences of violating it. Regardless, this does not apply to your scenario. If you believe that it is important for your business to have an English-only policy to include the breakroom or other employee recreation areas during employees’ break times, we recommend that you seek further guidance from your labor attorney before implementing the policy.