Should You Require Your Latino Employees To Speak Only English At Work?

"We are in America, %@$@ it, they should speak English!!!"

This is what a farm manager told me sometime ago as he complained about his newly hired Latino employees speaking Spanish at work and him and other employees not being able to understand what they were saying…

"If they want to speak Spanish, he continued, they can do that at home, not here. When they are at work, they should speak English, English, English!!!"

He told me this in a very demanding tone. I guess he thought that if he were demanding enough the situation would change.

Easier said than done, I thought…

This manager worked for a company that had turned to the available Latino workforce as an option to fill the jobs it couldn’t fill with native U.S. workers. This, of course, brought with it a new set of challenges.

According to the 2007 American Survey Report, the Foreign-Labor Force in the United States makes up about 16% of the total labor force. In lower wage industries, non-citizens often make up the majority of this labor.

In the Agricultural industry, foreign workers make up about 25.8% of the total labor force with non-citizens making up the majority of that labor (22%). In addition, the report cites that only about 11% of non-citizens were more likely to speak only English very well or speak English and another language at home. In other words, a small percentage of these workers can communicate in the English language.

According to the US Census Bureau, the number of U.S. residents that cannot speak English fluently has more than double since 1980. To some businesses, this has raised the question of the legality of the "English Only" policies for employees.

In its Compliance Manual, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that businesses can enforce "English Only" rules under certain conditions for business necessity. However, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "English Only" policies cannot affect only employees of a certain race or national origin and employers are under the obligation to protect employees from being discriminated against or from harassment because of their national origin (EEOC Compliance Manual). Employers violating these laws could be subject to costly fines. If your operation is considering an "English Only" policy, you may want to consult with a legal firm to protect you from possible discrimination claims.

In my personal experience, the companies that have been successful in dealing with these challenges have been the ones that have taken a proactive and a more "accommodating" type of approach when dealing with this issue. It’s easier to teach your Latino employees some English and have managers learn a little Spanish than to try to get the job done when you are short-handed…

I thank you for reading and for your comments.

Orlando Gil
Training Connections-Translation Services
"Helping Bridge the Gap with The Latino Workforce in the Agricultural Industry"