Can I be ordered by threat of firing not to speak Spanish with fellow employees while on the job?

UPDATED: Mar 1, 2012

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Can I be ordered by threat of firing not to speak Spanish with fellow employees while on the job?

I was recently ordered by my companies supervisors that I am not to speak Spanish with my fellow Spanish-speaking co-workers. I work as a bilingual representative doing customer service and hired to speak Spanish to our customers who only speak Spanish. Is it legal for my company to demand I not speak Spanish with other employees while on the job? Do I have just cause in fighting this or do they have a right to fire me for disobeying this demand.

Asked on March 1, 2012 under Employment Labor Law, Michigan


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 11 years ago | Contributor

Federal law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, religion, age over 40, or sex. Michigan law adds a number of other protected categories, including national origin; however, neither specifically protects language (that is, neither specifically says that a company may not discriminate on the basis of an employee's first or native language, though language-based discrimination would be illegal if it is actually racial or, in Michigan, national origin-based, discrimination).

However, more to the point, it is NOT discriminatory to prohibit the use of some language other than English at work (except as necessary for the job--e.g. to speak with customers). That is nothing more than a company (1) regulating its workplace for what it considers best efficiency (e.g. ensuring that all conversations are in the same language, so there are no misunderstandings); (2) avoiding what could be divisive at work (e.g. having some people speaking among themselves in Spanish could alientate or disaffect non-Spanish speakers at work); and (3) similar to 2), above, ensuring that the company is not accused of some form of illegal discrimination or harassment by letting some employees make others feel excluded.

In short, while it might be illegal to not hire someone because he or she speaks Spanish, if such action may be a front for racial or national origin discrimination, there is nothing illegal about requiring all workplace conversations to be in English. You may, of course, speak to your coworkers in Spanish after work is over, on weekends, etc. if you choose.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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