Language Barriers at Work: Addressing Discrimination for NYC’s Multilingual Workforce

By Douglas Lipsky

New York City’s workforce is vibrant, diverse, and multilingual. Beneath this tapestry of cultures and languages lies a less visible challenge—language barriers that can lead to workplace discrimination

This form of discrimination, though often subtle, undermines the principles of equality and opportunity that define our city. Employment attorneys knowledgeable in antidiscrimination laws can help dismantle these barriers and ensure every voice is heard and valued in the workplace.

The Silent Hurdle: Language Discrimination in Action

Imagine being overlooked for a promotion, not due to a lack of skill or dedication, but because of an accent. Consider the professional isolation of attending meetings without understanding the flow of conversation or the frustration of losing vital safety instructions in translation. These scenarios are daily realities for many of NYC’s workers, subtly eroding confidence and career trajectories.

This is not only a matter of workplace dynamics; it’s a legal issue. Under NYC’s Human Rights Law, language discrimination falls squarely under unlawful discriminatory practices when intersecting with national origin. However, identifying and addressing this discrimination requires a nuanced understanding of the law, a challenge readily accepted by legal professionals committed to justice.

Legal Protections and Promises

The New York City Human Rights Law protects against language-based discrimination, ensuring that employment decisions cannot be based on an employee’s primary language or accent. Moreover, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that employment decisions based solely on an individual’s accent or primary language may constitute an unlawful form of national origin discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

On the other hand, employers may have legitimate business interests for basing employment decisions on linguistic characteristics. English fluency or proficiency requirements are also permissible, provided they are necessary to perform the position effectively. Given that the level of fluency differs from position to position, employers should review the required level of fluency for a job on a case-by-case to avoid violating Title VII. 

Bridging the Gap: The Role of Employers and Employees

Creating an inclusive workplace is a shared responsibility. Employers can take proactive steps by implementing language-inclusive policies, offering language training programs, and ensuring communication is accessible to all employees. Such initiatives comply with legal standards and enrich the workplace culture, attracting a diverse talent pool and fostering innovation.

On the other hand, employees can advocate for themselves and their peers by being informed about their rights and the resources available. Documenting instances of discrimination, seeking internal remedies, and engaging with legal counsel when necessary are all steps in the right direction. In doing so, they protect their rights and contribute to a broader culture of inclusivity and respect.

Embrace Diversity, Ensure Fairness

The journey toward an inclusive workplace where every language is valued and every voice heard is ongoing. At Lipsky Lowe, we are dedicated to this cause. Our experience in employment law, combined with a deep commitment to justice and equality, positions us as a formidable ally in the fight against language discrimination. 

Whether you’re seeking guidance on creating an inclusive workplace or navigating the challenges of language discrimination, we’re here to help. Let’s ensure that language barriers do not stand in the way of fairness and opportunity. Together, we can create a workplace where every language is a bridge, not a barrier.

Talk To a Language Discrimination Attorney Today

For those facing language discrimination or seeking to make their workplaces more inclusive, Lipsky Lowe offers informed guidance to navigate these challenges. Contact us today to learn how we can protect your rights.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.