Discrimination Against Spanish Speaking Employees: What’s the Risk?

Speaking-SpanishOwning or managing a business carries with it several liabilities and potential risks. Most businesses focus on the aspects of property damage, fire hazards, employee safety, and other prominent causes of lawsuits and loss. A silent threat that is often ignored, or taken for granted, is discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The liability for these cases can be just as costly to the business as if there were a fire or other damaging incident.

One of the many freedoms that is savored by the American people is the right to not be discriminated against. Discrimination can come in a number of forms and the scope is being widened in response to public outcry. A case in point – in July 2013, discrimination against Spanish speaking employees found its way into a legal battle which is playing out in New Mexico.

As an employer, you are placed in a sensitive position when you have Spanish speaking employees and a need for English to be spoken at the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has set forth laws which include discrimination or harassment based upon the employee’s national origin, accent or use of another language besides English.

It has been alleged in the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico that when Whole Foods had placed a sign and instituted the directive their employees were to use English only while at the workplace, it was discriminatory in nature. Their case is rooted in the belief that there was discrimination against Spanish speaking employees, despite the notification being universal in nature and stating, “English-only”.

Requesting an employee to use English only in the workplace is considered a violation of the rights afforded under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It can be a difficult matter to address, especially for employers who have others within their staff, or clients, that are made to feel uncomfortable when there is a use of a language they are not familiar with. It raises a serious question of effective work performance and safety for employers and employees in a workplace which encompasses English-only speaking clients and staff.

The EEOC acknowledges that there is a need in some instances to request English-only in the workplace. The practice however is severely restricted by:

  • Not including employee breaks or other personal time while at the workplace
  • Only includes circumstances which are required to maintain a safe and functional work environment
  • Disciplinary action can only be taken after adequate notification of the violation and consequences thereof

Language, for many, is considered an integral part of their heritage and a major contributing factor to their personal being. Being asked to place that part of their self on hold while at a work can be construed as not only offensive, but discriminatory.

It is a subject that will continue to draw attention and debate from the side of an employer who has English speaking clients and employees, as well as from the employees who speak more than one language. Discrimination against Spanish speaking employees as evidenced in this legal battle will certainly continue to be an important risk of which all businesses need to be aware.

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