Prohibiting English-Only (2007 Dec)

by Barry A. Liebling

Does an employer have the right to require English on the job? The old controversy has been getting attention lately because of a case involving the Salvation Army and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC is suing the Salvation Army for firing two women in Massachusetts who were given one year to learn and use English at work but refused to comply. The Federal agency accuses the charity of discriminating against the employees “on the basis of their national origin.” Members of congress have lined up on each side of the issue. In one corner are the assimilationists headed by Senator Lamar Alexander who has proposed legislation to block the EEOC from suing companies with English-only policies. Opposing the assimilationists and supporting the EEOC suit are what The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund has labeled “ethnic grievance lobbies” headed by the House Hispanic Caucus.

What is driving the House Hispanic Caucus and the EEOC to object to companies requiring English?

The House Hispanic Caucus are politicians with the explicit mandate of watching out for the interests of Hispanics in the United States. And a good argument could be made that it is in the objective interests of Hispanics to master English. There is no question that those with English fluency are better off than those without it. If you live in the United States, English is the price of admission to anyone who wants to participate successfully in the economy.

Those who argue that requiring English is unfair, unreasonable, and discriminatory should consider the following thought experiment. Interview any immigrant who has learned English and ask if the skill is on balance advantageous. You will have to search long and hard to find anyone who honestly says, “I learned English, and I am worse off as a consequence.”

So from the standpoint of objective interests the Caucus should be exerting its efforts at maximizing the number of Hispanics who are Anglophones.

Why did the women who worked for the Salvation Army fail to learn English? It is not that they are lazy or stupid. People who come to this country and want to learn English almost always do so. Spend one year in the United States with a desire to assimilate, and television, radio, shopping malls, and neighbors will help bring you up to speed. It was personal spite that prevented the Salvation Army employees from acquiring English. They were making a political statement and deliberately rejecting the Anglophonic world. While they wanted to be in this country they did not want to be a part of it.

Notice that the members of the Caucus have a choice. They can encourage their constituency to assimilate and learn English or they can pander to those who do not want to blend into American society. Those who assimilate can do well on their own, achieve autonomy, and may have no need for the Caucus. By contrast Hispanics with poor English skills are less competent at fending for themselves. Individuals who are not interested in acquiring English may be easy marks for politicians who promise to protect them in Anglo society.

What would explain the EEOC’s opposition to companies that require English in the workplace?

Consider the premise behind the EEOC – discretionary action is dangerous. If employers are free to make their own decisions in hiring, promoting, and firing workers there is no guarantee that they will always do the right thing. Sometimes employers will act wisely, but at other times they will behave foolishly and unfairly. The purpose of the EEOC is to use government force to steer employers away from “unjust policies” toward actions that are “socially responsible.” And who is best qualified to recognize what is smart and what is foolish? Go to the head of the class if you said “the EEOC.”

This Federal agency does not have an animus against speaking English, but its officials have a keen desire for the authority to decide when it is appropriate. You may require English if you can prove, to the EEOC’s satisfaction, that it is a business necessity or it is dangerous not to do so. And the essential point is that private enterprises have to get permission. In the ideal EEOC world employers are obligated to play Mother-May-I with federal bureaucrats.

The proper solution to the English-Only controversy is to keep the government out of it entirely. Let employees and employers develop linguistic policies by mutual consent. Companies that have smart solutions will do well. Employers with indefensible policies will not only lose good workers but risk being shunned by potential customers. Does an employer have a right to require English? Yes, and the employer has to live with the natural consequences of that decision.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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