By Meghan Droste, June 12, 2019

Benjamin Franklin, one of my high school’s most famous dropouts, is generally praised in our history books as a founding father, an inventor, and a printer. Did you know that he was also one of the first prominent voices in the English-only movement? Yep, that’s right, our very own Ben Franklin had a serious problem with … German speakers. He apparently took issue with signs being printed in both English and German in Pennsylvania. He also stated publicly that German immigrants were “of the most ignorant Stupid Sort” and their refusal to learn English made it impossible to reach them. While Franklin’s anti-German sentiment may seem like an interesting footnote more than two centuries later, the animus underlying it unfortunately has not faded from our country, although it is generally focused on other languages and countries of origin now.

Due to the connection between language and national origin, English-only rules can be a violation of Title VII. The Commission addressed this issue earlier this year in Eric S. v. Dep’t of Defense, EEOC App. No. 0120171646 (Feb. 8, 2019). In that case, the complainant, who is from Puerto Rico, greeted a temporary supervisor who entered the work area in Spanish. The complainant and the temporary supervisor then engaged in a conversation in Spanish about their families, when the complainant’s supervisor approached them and loudly said “English, English!”

In his affidavit, the supervisor stated that he directed the two employees to use English because “he need[s] to know and understand what’s going on.” He also asserted that the agency had “a policy to speak English during duty hours” and that he believed all federal agencies had the same policy. The agency’s EEO office confirmed to the EEO investigator that there was no such agency policy. Despite this, the agency issued a Final Agency Decision finding no discrimination.

On its review of the appeal, the Commission noted that English-only rules are permissible only when there is a “business necessity.” Employers may be able to show a business necessity for communications with customers, collaborative assignments with coworkers who only speak English, and when there may be a safety issue, among other situations. The fact that some coworkers may be uncomfortable when employees speak other languages is not itself a business necessity.

The Commission found in the specific instance, there was no evidence that the exchange of pleasantries in Spanish impacted the safety or efficiency of the workplace. The agency’s attempt to argue that the visiting supervisor’s presence in the work area was a safety risk was unavailing, as the complainant’s supervisor admitted recognizing him from another part of the facility. As a result, the Commission remanded the complaint to the agency and ordered an investigation into the complainant’s damages.

The supervisor’s comment might not seem like much, but it can certainly have an impact on how welcome, or not welcome, an employee feels in the workplace. Effective training on these issues will prevent similar situations in your agency and avoid harm to your employees and the time and expense of litigation. Viel Glück out there! [email protected]

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