LOS ANGELES — The occasional "que pasa?" probably won't hurt you. But carrying on a full-blown conversation in any language other than English could someday cost you your job.
For reasons of safety and employee unity, businesses are increasingly adopting English-only rules for the workplace.
That means idle chatter in the wrong tongue on the factory floor, at the check-out counter, or even on the street a block away from the office is becoming grounds for dismissal at some US firms.
As a result, a growing number of workers - whose native languages include Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and French Creole - are filing discrimination suits over the new rules.
The rise in such restrictions comes at a time when nearly two dozen states have declared English as the official language. Some say the trend reflects a larger ambivalence in society over the acceptance of immigrants in a nation built by immigrants - one that often considers diversity a strength.
Many businesses, in fact, seek out bilingual employees and welcome less-costly workers - from Mexican strawberry pickers to Russian software engineers. Yet, increasingly, that may only be on certain terms.
As the American workplace diversifies, the flap over what language is legal around the water cooler will likely only intensify.
"This is not only a legal question. It is also a question of how do you manage a diverse work force?" says Ed Chen, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in California.
English-only rules are not new. Yet lawyers and activists say companies are placing more demands on when and where workers must speak English, and they are enacting harsher penalties on employees who don't comply.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which only started tracking complaints about English-only rules in 1996, says they are rising. Maria Quinones and Evelyn Silverman, for example, say they were dismissed in May 1995 shortly after their supervisor at a New York City home-care agency met with them to discuss "speaking Spanish on the job."
The two women, who speak English and Spanish, allege that the company prohibits employees from speaking Spanish during breaks, lunch in the cafeteria, and within one city block of their office building. An attorney for their former employer, Long Life Home Care, contends that "there was no English-only rule in effect at the company and the [two workers] were fired for just cause." The EEOC filed a lawsuit a year ago in US District Court in New York against the company.
Companies - from retailers to financial institutions - say they adopt such policies because speaking a language that customers or coworkers don't understand is inefficient and can create distrust. "It's not so much that companies don't want workers speaking Spanish or German in the workplace," says Barry Lawrence of the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "But sometimes it defeats the purpose of trying to build synergy."
In some workplaces, such as air-traffic-control towers and on assembly lines, clear communication can also be a critical safety issue. But civil libertarians argue that these rules stem from a growing anti-immigration sentiment and don't respect cultural and language diversity in the workplace.
"We see people being reprimanded not for violating safety laws, but because they are talking to a fellow employee in the elevator," says William Tamayo, an EEOC lawyer in San Francisco.
Mr. Tamayo argues that English-only rules reinforce the "erroneous perception" that when people speak in another language it is meant to demean someone who only speaks English.
IN many cases, lawyers say, companies don't have policies in writing. Rather a supervisor, without direct corporate approval, is prohibiting workers from speaking other languages.
Still, the legality of English-only policies and how far companies can go in implementing them remains unclear. The EEOC maintains that English-only rules discriminate against workers based on national origin, and it is therefore illegal to require all employees to speak English at all times. Under the guidelines, however, an employer may have a rule requiring employees to speak only in English at certain times where the employer can show the rule is "justified by business necessity."
The problem, say the ACLU's Mr. Chen and others, is that while courts reviewing English-only laws are supposed to refer to the EEOC guidelines in making a ruling, they are not required to accept them. In 1993, for example, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco put aside the guidelines and upheld the English-only rules of a local meat-packing plant. The court said such rules are invalid only if an employee proves that they create an atmosphere of "inferiority, isolation, and intimidation."
Still, of the five companies the EEOC has sued in the past four years, all have ended their English-only policies, says Mr. Tamayo. In 1995, two American Red Cross laboratories in Rockville, Md., abandoned such a rule after the EEOC sued on behalf of Chinese employees who were prohibited from speaking English and Chinese interchangeably to each other during office hours and telephone conversations to family members.
"Language is a very emotional subject," says Marielena Hincapi, a lawyer at the Employment Law Center in San Francisco. "A lot of the arguments companies are making [for English-only policies] are not logical or legal, but are coming from inside."