Natural foods chain Whole Foods faces allegations that it punished two Hispanic employees in New Mexico for speaking Spanish, in violation of the company’s English-only policy. Faced with a potential boycott and a petition asking the company to rescind its English-only policy, Whole Foods revised the policy.
Previously, the policy stated that employees must speak English “if you speak English and are in the presence of customers.” Conversations with co-workers were required to be in English “any time you are on the clock and discussing work-related tasks or subjects.”
In response to the allegations, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb stated that the two employees received one-day suspensions for unacceptable workplace behavior, not for speaking Spanish. Robb apologized for the policy’s lack of clarity and said that the allegations had prompted the company to reevaluate its language policy.
The revised policy states: “When speaking with customers or fellow Team Members, please make sure you are sensitive to others who may want to join your conversation or ask you a question. If needed, switch to a common language to be inclusive and respectful. Workers still are required to converse in English with shoppers unless requested otherwise by the customer.”
Whole Foods’ original language policy risked running afoul of federal law. An EEOC regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7, provides that a rule requiring employees to speak only English “at all times” in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment and a presumptive violation of Title VII. The EEOC has stated that rules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violate the law unless they are reasonably necessary to the operation of the business. English-only rules should be limited to the circumstances in which they are needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently.
Employers should take care in crafting workplace language policies, especially when those policies may be applied to employees on breaks, not performing job duties, or engaging in casual conversations. As always, employers should make sure that their policies are clear and are clearly communicated to employees.