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English Only Policies

California law limits your ability to adopt or enforce an "English-only" policy. For employers with 5 or more employees (exception: non-profit religious associations or religious corporations), you may not adopt or enforce a policy limiting or prohibiting the use of any language in any workplace, unless:

  • The language restriction can be justified by a "business necessity;" and
  • You notify employees of the circumstances and time when the language restriction must be observed and what the consequences are for violating it.

"Business necessity" means a prevailing legitimate business purpose such as:

  • The language restriction is necessary to the safe and efficient operation of the business;
  • The language restriction effectively fulfills the business purpose it is supposed to serve; and
  • There is no alternative to the rule that would accomplish the same purpose equally well with a less discriminatory impact.

California law appears to conflict with a decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held an English-only rule may be valid unless it is proven to adversely affect a protected class of employees on the basis of their national origin. The English-only rule upheld by the 9th Circuit was extremely narrow, requiring only that English be spoken during work hours and allowing other languages on breaks, at lunch, and before and after work. Since California's new law is tougher than the standard set by the 9th Circuit, you should follow state law when considering English-only policies. Additionally, Federal EEOC guidelines generally prohibit English-only policies.

Tips on how to comply with the law:

  • Eliminate English-only policies from your employee handbook and other documents
  • Translate documents into the language(s) used by employees

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