So long as your fluency to speak or write a certain language is related to the job to which you are applying, an employer can ask about your language skills. Prior to employment, however, an employer cannot ask questions about:

  • Your native language;
  • The language spoken in your home; and
  • How you learned to read, write, or speak a specific language.

During the interview process, employers can ask how many language you speak fluently. But any questions as to how you became fluent or what language you grew up speaking are not allowed.

Can My Employer Require Me to Speak English-Only at Work?

Yes, but there are limits. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) permits English-only rules in the workplace if the requirement is business-related. Additionally, the employee is not required to adhere to the English-only rule during employee break periods.

Since there is a connection between national origin and language, employers are often advised to steer clear of requiring unnecessary language rules. The reasoning behind this is because national origin is a protected class and employers cannot discriminate against employees because of this class. It’s very easy for discriminating against a language to result in discriminating against a certain national origin.

How can a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification Apply in this Situation?

A bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) is a defense an employer may use to a discrimination claim. In this case, your employer must prove that barring non-English languages in the workplace is necessary for the business to function.

For instance, a retail store that sells its wares to English-speaking customers, may require that its sales people speak English exclusively. A telemarketer who answers phone calls from English-speaking customers must be able to speak English to understand and respond to the customer complaints.

Are There Laws Against English-Only Rules in the Workplace?

The EEOC states that employers are in violation of the law if they require English-only rules, but can be justified if it’s based on a business necessity. As mentioned above, a position as a telemarketer, customer service, teaching, etc. can result in speaking English as a BFOQ. Employment discrimination is a serious issue, and the following classes are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act:

Be sure to check your local laws, as individual states have enacted laws related to equal opportunity rights in the workplace.

Do I Need an Employment Lawyer?

If your employer has violated your rights or you have questions pertaining to your company’s language policies, speak with an employment attorney immediately. An experienced attorney in your area can inform you of your employment rights, help you decide your best course of action, and represent your interests in court.