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What is language discrimination in the workplace?

Many of us think of discrimination in the context of race, gender or age — but did you know that California victims of discrimination are often targeted because of the language they use? Language discrimination occurs happens when an employee is treated unfairly because of his or her native language or characteristics of his or her speech. If you have ever seen signs for an “English-only” workplace, then you have personally witnessed evidence of language discrimination.

You might not think that this type of discrimination is illegal — after all, employers should be able to control the way in which communication happens on their job sites, right? The truth is that language discrimination in California and other states is generally considered to be an offshoot of unfair treatment because of national origin. Even though it is not explicitly spelled out in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, judges widely consider language discrimination to be a legal violation.

In some instances, employers are permitted to limit their hiring and workplace practices to a single-language environment. These include the possibility that there is a “business necessity” for having an English-only staff — relevant in some customer service positions. Even in those instances, employers must follow fairly significant restrictions, and the employer must prove that there is no other method to achieve the desired business outcome except for policing employees’ language. A similar standard applies for employees whose accents make communication difficult. The worker’s accent must measurably impact his or her ability to do the job in order for any type of action to be warranted.

So, when can an employee seek legal redress for language discrimination? In most cases, the need to communicate clearly with the public must be missing from the job description. Potential workers who do not have a high level of English proficiency should not be passed over for work because of their language preference and abilities if the job does not involve complex communication requirements. Victims of this type of discrimination may be entitled to legal and financial redress.

Source: The Legal Aid Society, “Language Discrimination,” accessed Sep. 15, 2015

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