Many people come to New York from other countries to live and work. It is against the law for any New York City or Long Island employer to refuse to hire someone based on his or her country of origin. Similarly, an employer cannot refuse to promote or otherwise discriminate against an existing employee based on where he or she comes from.
Can Employers Have “English-Only” Rules in the Workplace?
Given that many non-U.S. born workers do not speak English as their first language, or if they do speak the language it is with a noticeable accent, can an employer discriminate on that basis? The answer is a qualified yes. If the employer can demonstrate that a person's accent or inability to speak English materially interferes with a job requirement, it may not constitute discrimination to treat that employee differently. Put another way, if a particular job requires “effective oral communication in English,” then it is not illegal to refuse to hire or promote an employee who cannot speak in English.
This does not mean, however, that employers can adopt blanket “English-only” policies in the workplace. Language restrictions are only justified to the extent the employer can prove it is necessary to conduct business. So while an employer could require an employee to only speak English when dealing with customers, it cannot mandate such rules when employees are on a break or having lunch on the company's premises.
State Agency Permitted to Condition Promotion on Language Ability
Here is an illustration of how courts deal with language-based employment policies in practice. This is from a recent case in upstate New York. The employee in this case works for the New York State Department of Transportation. He was born in what used to be known as the Soviet Union and does not speak English as his primary language.
The employee alleged that the Department refused to offer him a promotion based on his “national origin.” The Department's hiring committee responded that he “was not selected for promotion based on their concerns that he could not communicate effectively in the English language.” The New York Supreme Court's Fourth Appellate Department said this was not illegal employment discrimination. It agreed with the Department of Transportation that English-language skills were “reasonably related” to the supervisory role the employee sought. This was therefore a “legitimate, independent and nondiscriminatory reason” for denying the promotion.
Have You Been the Victim of National Origin Discrimination?
Even if requiring English for certain employment opportunities is not illegal, there are other types of language-based discrimination that may still run afoul of the law. For instance, an employer cannot repeatedly denigrate or mock an employee based on their accent or difficulty with speaking English. Such activities may contribute to a “hostile work environment.”
If you have been the victim of language-based or national origin discrimination, you need to speak with a New York employment law attorney who can advise you of your rights. You may be entitled to compensation under federal and state civil rights laws. Contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar today to speak with a qualified attorney.