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Is It Legal to Require Foreign Language Skills for a Job?

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By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on May 29, 2014 11:29 AM

If your company deals internationally or serves a large non-English speaking clientele, you may be considering requiring your employees to speak both English and another language.

But is requiring foreign language for a job a form of discrimination?

The answer is: it depends.

Language Requirements

With jobs still in short supply and high demand, and an increasingly diverse workplace, job discrimination complaints reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have been running at all time highs.

With that in mind, any time the requirements for a job may, either purposefully or inadvertently, have a disproportionate effect on a racial or ethnic group, it's best to make sure you aren't setting yourself up for a workplace discrimination claim.

In general the rules regarding requiring employees to speak a foreign language are similar to the rules regarding requiring your employees only speak English. Since either can be a burden on certain ethnic groups, if your policy is challenged you'll likely have to show that your policy was adopted for non-discriminatory reasons and that it is a business necessity.

Business Necessity

Generally a business necessity is something that is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently. For example, if your business has a large clientele that speaks primarily Spanish, requiring workers who interact with customers to speak Spanish would most likely be a business necessity.

But for employees who do not have to interact with customers or other employees who primarily speak a foreign language, a requirement that they be bilingual may not be a sufficient business necessity, and may lead to a discrimination complaint.

The good news is, according to the EEOC website, you are not required to provide additional compensation to employees for work performed in a foreign language. But in many industries (including the law), when seeking out employees with foreign-language skills, you may have to sweeten the deal anyway to get the right person for the job.

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