Language discrimination is an unfair – and often illegal – employment practice that affects many Californians. But what is language discrimination, and what does it look like in action? Here’s what you need to know:
- Language discrimination can be a form of national origin discrimination
- Employers must treat applicants and employees fairly when it comes to the languages they speak
- Companies can’t single people out and make them take an English test to apply for a job unless they make every applicant for that position take an English test
- Some employers can require people to speak only English, under certain circumstances
- Employers cannot deny you employment or other opportunities because you’re not fluent in English unless the job you’re applying for or performing requires you to be fluent in English
- Companies must show “business necessity” in order to legally implement English-only policies in the workplace, or they could be engaging in language discrimination
What is Language Discrimination?
Language discrimination is an employer’s unfair treatment of a job applicant or employee because of their native language or speech characteristics (like accents, the size of a person’s English vocabulary or a person’s grammar). It’s different from racial discrimination, but it can tie in to national origin discrimination.
Related: What is national origin discrimination?
Is Language Discrimination Illegal?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) can protect people against language discrimination. Additionally, the California Fair Employment and Housing Council has established rules that protect the use of languages other than English in the workplace. For example, an employer can’t put a policy in place that requires employees to use only English unless:
- There is a true business necessity for English
- The language restriction is narrowly tailored
- The employer notifies its employees of the time and circumstances when language restrictions are required, and of the consequences of violating the language restriction
- The language restriction is necessary for safety and efficiency
- The language restriction fulfills its business purpose
- There isn’t an alternative practice to the language restriction that would accomplish the same purposes
Examples of Language Discrimination
Language discrimination isn’t about someone asking you to repeat yourself or to say something in English. Instead, it refers to things like employers creating English-only rules when it’s not truly necessary for you to speak English.
Here are a few examples:
- Your employer makes a rule that only English is allowed in your workplace, including when workers are on break or are communicating with each other in the same language
- An employer refuses to hire you for a position because you have an accent
- Your employer gives you a poor performance review for your English skills, even when you don’t have to talk to customers or coworkers very often
Related: Language Discrimination in the Workplace: Examples
Can an Employer Require You to Take an English Test to Qualify for a Job?
In some cases, employers can test your English language skills. However, it can only do so when it tests all the other applicants, too.
If an employer ends up denying someone employment because of that person’s English skills, it must have a legitimate reason for doing so. One example would be if the employer is a large, English-language newspaper hiring a journalist for up-to-the-minute reporting; in that case, the employee’s level of English proficiency is very important to doing the job properly. Another is when an employer has many customers in China, for example – that employer could require a person in a customer service position to speak Chinese or even a specific Chinese dialect.
What About Speaking With an Accent?
In most cases, employers can’t decline to hire someone solely because of the person’s accent. However, if the employer has a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for doing so, it may be legal. It depends on the nature of the position, the person’s qualifications and whether the prospective employee’s manner of speaking would harm their job performance.
Is It Discrimination to Deny Employment for English Communication Skills?
How well you speak, write or read in English should not impact whether an employer offers you a position – but there are exceptions. If the position you’re applying for requires good English communication skills, it may not be discrimination. For example, if you’re applying for a position in which you must listen to spoken orders from English-speaking customers and convey instructions to English-speaking engineers, your employer can require that you have good English communication skills.
Have You Been a Victim of Language Discrimination?
If you feel you’ve been the victim of language discrimination, we want to help you.
Call us right now at 818-230-8380 for your free consultation with an employment attorney. You may have a legal case, so call us today.