English-Only Can Be Discriminatory

While in theory a hotel should be able to manage all aspects of guest interaction, including requiring that employees speak only English in the workplace, such rules can conflict with Title VII and guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

This potential conflict is best reflected in a recent settlement between the EEOC and The Melrose Hotel Co. of New York. In that case, 13 employees received an $800,000 settlement for complaints of a hostile work environment — which included allegations that Hispanic employees were subjected to an English-only rule.

Clearly, it's important for hotel owners, operators and managers to balance how to best deliver a unique brand experience along with the rights of their workforce. The increasingly diverse workforce in America makes English-only a difficult question.

More than 19.5 million employees in the U.S. are of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. This workforce inevitably results in a greater potential for language barriers; it has also created a need in many hotels to implement programs that address communications between management, associates and guests. For example, Marriott International, Inc. recently announced a 23-hotel pilot program to teach workplace/life skills English to non-native speakers so they can more comfortably interact in the workplace. The contrast between the Melrose Hotel and Marriott demonstrate that decisions regarding English-only policies and increasing language skills in the workplace must be well-thought-out.

Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination based on national origin. The EEOC identifies four forms of discrimination:

  • rules requiring employees to speak English at all times in the workplace;

  • refusal to hire an applicant based on manner of speaking or accent;

  • harassment in the form of ethnic slurs or physical conduct because of an employee's national origin that creates a hostile work environment; and

  • singling out applicants of a particular national origin and requiring only them to provide employment verification.

The EEOC does permit certain English-only situations when the employer demonstrates a business justification for the requirement. When considering English-only policies, there are a number of practices managers can follow to comply with Title VII:

  1. Do not enforce a blanket English-only policy, as such a broad policy violates Title VII. For example, a strict English-only policy makes no exception for speaking another language during lunch or in a break room.

  2. Limit any English-only policy to business necessities, such as:

    • communications with customers, coworkers or supervisors who only speak English;

    • coordination of tasks in emergencies;

    • where an English-only rule is needed for cooperative work; and

    • enabling an English-speaking supervisor to monitor an employee whose job duties require communication with coworkers or customers.

  3. Create an English-only policy with exceptions for appropriate circumstances, such as encouraging employees to interact in their native tongue with international guests who prefer to communicate with staff fluent in their respective language.

  4. Provide employees with notice of any English-only policy. Employees must understand the reasons for such a policy, as well as the consequences that may occur if they violate it. Any employer's application of an English-only policy without effective notification is grounds for discrimination.

Perhaps the best advice is if you adopt a policy, don't call it English-only; it's a misleading title. Some other title, such as Guest Communications, better describes the goal of the policy. After all, effective communication within the hotel is what each hotel manager should be striving to achieve.

David E. Morrison, Esq. and Michael L. Sullivan, Esq. are principals in the Labor & Employment and Litigation Groups of Goldberg Kohn, a Chicago-based law firm. Morrison has a nationwide practice specializing in employment counseling and litigation. In addition to his employment law experience, Sullivan also represents employers across the nation who face traditional labor law issues. They may be reached at david.morrison@goldbergkohn.com or michael.sullivan@goldbergkohn.com.

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