Language Liability in a Plurality Nation

By Sullivan, Laura | Risk Management, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Language Liability in a Plurality Nation


Sullivan, Laura, Risk Management


At the Delano Regional Medical Center (DRMC) in California, as a nurse sat down to her lunch, a coworker approached. She sprayed air freshener over the Filipino-American meal the nurse had prepared, while declaring her hatred for Filipino food.

As an isolated incident, it may have been an individual's egregious act, but according to a 2010 lawsuit filed against DRMC by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it was symptomatic of alleged management-sanctioned discrimination against Filipino-American employees. It also illustrates how an organization's language policy can quickly morph into a cacophony of discrimination and harassment liabilities.

As the U.S. workforce has become more diverse, language issues have emerged as a growing subset of national origin-based discrimination cases. And, since 1980, when Garcia v. Gloor established language as an essential component of ethnic or national identity and deemed overbroad, English-only policies illegal, the specifics of workplace language restrictions have come under close EEOC scrutiny.

Watch What You Say

In its investigation of DRMC, the EEOC found that Filipino-Americans were singled out for discipline and monitoring because of an English-only policy. The hospital CEO and management allegedly spearheaded the effort in 2006, and encouraged coworkers and volunteers to act as vigilantes. The case settled in September 2012 with no admittance of wrongdoing by DRMC, however the medical center was issued a $975,000 penalty and instructed to introduce mandatory protocol changes for its language policy and handling of harassment and discrimination. It was also forced to submit to EEOC monitoring.

The EEOC, charged with interpreting and enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, considers language-related issues under national origin-based protections, including discrimination and harassment for accents, English fluency and English-only rules. Today it manages more workplace discrimination cases than ever before, including a jump in national origin-based charges from 6,712 in 1997 to 11,833 in 2011. The settlement cost to employers, excluding the organizational changes and monitoring expenses, reached $34.1 million in 2011. Although a breakdown of incidents involving illegal English-only policies was not available, according to the EEOC, such cases make up a significant portion of national-origin discrimination citations and are also on the rise.

Determining exactly when an English-only workplace policy conflicts with employees' civil rights, however, is complicated. Inconsistent court interpretations create a "patchwork" of "laws, regulations, case law and policies" without "a single scheme for viewing claims to language rights," wrote Denise Gilman, professor at the University of Texas at Austin School Law, in the Summer 2011 Harvard Human Rights Journal.

Given that the mere presence of an English-only policy marks a red flag for EEOC scrutiny, revising an employer program based on EEOC suggestions is an appropriate first step to mitigate the potential liability of its unwanted attention.

English-Only, Mostly

If specific circumstances deem an English-only policy a "business necessity" it falls within the law, provided evidence backs that assessment. …

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