Language discrimination in the workplace (examples below) is a form of national origin discrimination, and in many cases, it’s illegal. It occurs when a person is treated differently for not speaking English or because of his or her language skills.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is Language Discrimination in the Workplace?
Language discrimination can occur during the hiring process or when someone is already working for a company.
In a nutshell, language discrimination is treating someone unfairly because of the way he or she talks, including an accent, vocabulary and syntax. It often happens to people in the U.S. whose first language isn’t English, although it can happen in other settings where workers speak languages other than English.
It’s a form of national origin discrimination, and in most cases, it’s against the law.
Related: Religious discrimination in the workplace
A Word on National Origin Discrimination
There are federal and state laws that prevent national origin discrimination, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and rules from the Fair Employment and Housing Council. Employers are not allowed to:
- Demote you or fire you based on your national origin
- Deny you employment because you’re a non-citizen if you have valid work papers, with a few exceptions
- Fail to promote you or offer you the same benefits others receive
- Permit harassment because you’re part of a particular national origin
- Prevent you from accessing or going to training events based on national origin
Language Discrimination in the Workplace: Examples
Check out these examples of language discrimination in the workplace.
#1. You are fluent in Spanish and use it talk to your colleagues, who are also fluent. Your boss tells you that the company has an English-only policy and tells you that you can no longer speak Spanish while you’re at work.
#2. You’re qualified for a promotion at work, but you get passed over for someone with similar qualifications.
#3. You apply for a customer service position that you’re qualified for, but you’re turned down because you have an accent. Another employee with a different accent is hired for the position.
#4. Your boss or a potential employer tells you that you don’t speak English well enough to qualify for a position. There are some exceptions to this, though – such as when the job relies on in-depth knowledge of the English language that you don’t have (such as a writer or editor for an English publication, or when the position requires regular communication between the employee and English-speaking customers or clients).
Related: Employment discrimination information
Common Questions on Language Discrimination
Can Employers Require You to Take an English Test?
Sometimes employers can require job applicants to take English tests – but only if it requires everyone else applying for that job to take English tests. An employer can’t single you out and make you take one. (If you’re the only person applying for the job, that doesn’t count as singling you out.)
Is it Legal to Have an English-Only Workplace?
In most workplaces, it’s not legal to have a rule that forces employees to speak English only. However, if English is necessary for conducting business and the employer has notified all its employees appropriately, it could be legal.
For example, if you work in a call center that only takes calls from small towns in Minnesota, where most people calling in for support speak English, your employer can require you to only speak English on those calls. In that case, it’s a business necessity.
Can I Be Discriminated Against Because I Have Poor English Skills?
Employers cannot deny you employment or other opportunities because you’re not fluent in English unless the job you’re applying for requires a certain level of skill that you don’t have. In that case, it’s not discrimination – it’s just the employer needing a worker who has certain qualifications.
For example, if you apply as a journalist at a newspaper with an English-speaking audience but you don’t have excellent English skills, the employer isn’t discriminating against you by not hiring you. Being exceptionally fluent in English is a business necessity.
Related: Wrongful termination and discrimination
When Can an Employer Require Employees to Speak Only English at Work?
In some cases, employers can require employees to speak only English at work, such as when the company meets these conditions:
- The employer can show “business necessity” for an English-only policy
- The employer notifies employees about the policy, as well as when and where it applies
Can an Employer Treat Employees Differently Because of Their Accents?
An employer can’t take adverse actions against an employee because the employee has an accent unless the employer can show that the accent “materially interferes with job performance.” In this language discrimination in the workplace example, the employer has to be able to prove that the employee’s accent is negatively affecting the performance of the job.
Related: Hostile work environments and harassment or discrimination
What to Do if You’ve Experienced Language Discrimination in the Workplace
If you’ve seen any of these language discrimination in the workplace examples in real life, or if you’ve been through something similar, we may be able to help you.
Call us right now at 818-230-8380 for your free consultation with an employment attorney. We can answer your questions, talk about possible outcomes for your case, and develop a strategy that gets you the best possible results.