Don’t Get Burned By an English-Only Rule

A trip to the Tri-State area is not complete without trying a cheesesteak. While a great cheesesteak can be found at dozens of places in Delaware, South Philadelphia is, and always will be, the place to go for those needing a fix of this world-famous culinary delight.

One of the most popular eateries has been involved in a sizzling hot dispute over whether it could require its customers to order in English. Geno’s Steaks received national attention when it put up a sign reading,

“This is America. When ordering please speak English.”

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations promptly filed a discrimination complaint against the shop. But yesterday, it ruled that there was “insufficient evidence” to pursue the case.

While it may be okay for a steak shop to require orders in English, Delaware employers should move much slower in requiring their employees to speak only English in the workplace.

The EEOC has been very aggressive in challenging such rules and has achieved large settlement awards from employers who could not justify that such rules were absolutely necessary.

• In 2001, a Texas university agreed to pay $2.4 million to settle claims that the EEOC filed on behalf of 18 Hispanic housekeepers who were allegedly ordered to speak only English on the job ― even during breaks ― although some didn’t speak English.

• In 2003, a Colorado casino paid $1.5 million to settle a national origin discrimination suit that the agency filed on behalf of a class of Hispanic employees claiming verbal harassment and the improper application of English- only rules.

• In 2006, a New York hospital paid $200,000 to settle a national origin discrimination suit that the agency filed for a class of Hispanic housekeeping employees who were subjected to English-only rules without any business justification. One manager reportedly told the employees, “This is America. Speak English.”
Under the EEOC’s guidelines, “An English- only rule may be used if it is needed to promote the safe or efficient operation of the employer’s business.”

The EEOC’s compliance manual suggests the following examples of situations in which business necessity would justify an English-only rule:

• for communications with customers, coworkers, and supervisors who speak English but not the employee’s native language;

• during emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language for safety reasons;

• on cooperative work assignments that need a common language for efficiency and productivity; and

• when a supervisor who speaks English but not the employee’s native language needs to monitor the individual’s performance if his job duties require communication with coworkers or customers