A Massachusetts federal court last week approved a consent decree settlement of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit against the Salvation Army over the firing of two Spanish-speaking employees who failed to adhere to the employer’s "English only" policy.  To read the consent decree in that case, click here

In that suit, the EEOC had accused the Salvation Army with national origin discrimination under Title VII for enforcing an English-only policy that required its thrift store employees to speak only English in the workplace, even when on breaks.  The EEOC argued that the English-only policy violated Title VII because it was not justified by “business necessity," as it was used to terminate two clothes sorters who had no customer contact.  

Under the consent degree, the Salvation Army will adopt new policy that employees shall use English in the workplace “to the best of their abilities when speaking to any other employee, beneficiary, customer, or a supervisor"–however, the policy will allow non-English speaking employees to speak their native language during work breaks and to use languages other than English with customers who speak the same foreign language.   

This case is a reminder to employers that English-only policies may only be used and enforced if English is a "business necessity."  Requiring employees to speak English during working time when speaking to customers, supervisors and coworkers is generally accepted.  However, requiring employees to speak only English during breaks or in private, or requiring employees to demonstrate English proficiency when English is not a bona fide job requirement is highly risky.  If you have or are considering an English-only policy for your workplace, you may want to ask your employment attorney to review that policy.  To read the EEOC’s guidance on English-only policies, click here.