Should employees be required to speak English at work? A recent lawsuit by two former employees of the Salvation Army once again raises this controversial issue. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts against the Salvation Army, claiming that Dolores Escorbor and Maria del Carmen Perdomo, who spoke very little English, were discriminated against when they were fired for speaking Spanish at work, a violation of the Salvation Army's English-only rule. (Read the complaint here.) Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) responded by proposing legislation to prohibit the EEOC from spending any money on the lawsuit, and the politicking took off from there.
Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to require employees to speak English, and the law--and the EEOC--recognize this. Employers can require employees to speak English on the job if there are legitimate business reasons--such as safety concerns, or the need to speak to customers--to do so. What's puzzling about this case is why the Salvation Army required these particular employees to speak English, even though they hadn't required it previously, and even though it didn't seem necessary for their work: sorting donated clothing. Both were hired in 1999--when, presumably, their English language skills were no better than when they were fired years later, and they seem to have competently performed their jobs during that time..
Here's another thing that's odd to me--and more than a little disturbing: This case has been criticized as an example of government regulation run amok, common sense taking a back seat to political correctness, and so on. This rhetoric is aided by a sympathetic defendant (just picture the smiling face you see outside the store during the holiday season, ringing the bell and wishing you a Merry Christmas). But why does "common sense" dictate firing established employees for speaking their native language? And why do so few commentators seem interested in why the Salvation Army wanted them to speak English in the first place?
I'm not claiming that the Salvation Army didn't have a legitimate reason for requiring these employees to speak English at work. But that's the issue here, and we shouldn't lose sight of it. We heard reader sympathy for the 54-year-old former employee who questioned whether Google's true motives for firing him were age-related, and thus violated existing federal law. Not to be a Scrooge, but I think it's fair to hold the Salvation Army to the same standard.