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6 - Language in the Workplace

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2016

Douglas A. Kibbee
Affiliation:
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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Summary

All are created equal, but clearly individuals are different. Linguistic differences are one of the many such distinguishing characteristics. Language is a necessary component of the relationship between the employer and the employees, between employees, and between the place of business and the public it serves. Because language is so crucial to these relationships, courts have granted businesses wide latitude in employment decisions relating to language, both in hiring and firing, and in the maintenance of a safe, efficient, and peaceful workplace. Nonetheless, there are limits to this discretion when irrational application constitutes illegal discrimination, or, in case of safety, failure to warn. The employment decisions can depend on knowledge of English, or on the English-language accent of the employee. Warning of danger depends on the ability to foresee potential users and to inform them in a language they understand of the harmful consequences of misuse.

A peaceful and efficient workplace depends on the mutual respect of employees and employers and on safety issues that can have a linguistic component. As we have seen in many other areas, language itself is not protected, but language as a marker of national origin or race may be. Protections may involve the employee's choice of language, or the divergence of the employee's English from standard English. Concerns about safety, efficiency, and about the creation of a hostile workplace environment can motivate both English-only rules in the workplace and employees’ rejection of such rules. Equal opportunity in the workplace depends on the resolution of these issues. Targeting explicitly discriminatory practices in the 1960s gave way to the identification of seemingly neutral barriers to equality in the 1970s and to the effects of a hostile working environment for protected classes.

The empowering legislation for protecting equality in the workplace is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

§ 1606.1 Definition of national origin discrimination.

The Commission defines national origin discrimination broadly as including, but not limited to, the denial of equal employment opportunity because of an individual's, or his or her ancestor's, place of origin; or because an individual has the physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.

Type
Chapter
Information
Language and the Law
Linguistic Inequality in America
, pp. 164 - 181
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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