Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Kaweah Delta Hospital, English-Only Rules and Third Parties

I was amused to read the story in the Visalia Times-Delta last week on the policy at Kaweah Delta Hospital District to encourage employees to speak English during meal or rest periods as well as during work.  Interestingly, the District is not compelling employees to speak English, just encouraging English speaking.  The rationale for this practice is to promote positive employee relations.  Actually, it seems smart to me.  Every time I have been asked to opine on English-only rules (as they are called) it has been for this reason.  Others feel -- some rightly so and some out of more fear than reason -- that when others are speaking in a foreign language around them, it is so they cannot understand.  It's really no different than whispering so that another person can't hear what you are saying about him/her.   

The newspaper interviews "experts" to opine on whether the District's policy is legally sound.  A couple of HR professionals suggest that the District is close to or has crossed the line of discrimination.  An an official for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also suggests that the policy is unlawful. 

From my perspective, the hospital's rule does not violate the law.  In fact, I'm not even sure the law, as articulated in an EEOC regulation, is really "the law".  By the way, the law is found in 29 C.F.R. Section 1606.7.  But when has that stopped an an all-knowing, wiser governmental agency?  (Note the sarcasm.) 

First, the hospital did not impose an English-only rule.  What it said, as I read it, is this:  Be considerate of others.  If you are speaking a foreign language around them they might think you are gossiping or criticizing them.  But I suspect that if employees could not speak English without difficulty, no one would fault them for speaking their native tongue. 

Second, the English-only regulation has been criticized by the courts.  The rule attempts to impose a burden on employers to justify their policy without an employee bearing the burden of proving discrimination.  Moreover, courts have indicated that imposing even an English-only rule is justifiable to reduce tension within an office, to improve interpersonal relationships and to prevent those who can't speak the foreign language from being alienated. 

What do I learn from all of this?  (1) Newspapers try to stir up controversy to create a story; (2) even so-called experts don't necessarily apply the law correctly; (3) government agencies will say what will justify their existence; and (4) get good legal counsel to help when implementing workplace changes.  From my understanding of the hospital's policy, it's valid.  Looks like the hospital did its homework. 

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