Foreign Language Business Meetings Not Unlawful Discrimination, Court Finds

In a recent decision, a New York federal court rejected a former employee’s claims that permitting employees to speak only Japanese in business meetings, where individuals who do not speak Japanese are present and are without an interpreter, constitutes unlawful discrimination based on race or ethnicity.

In Kurtanidze v. Mizuho Bank, Ltd., 2024 WL 117180 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 13, 2024), the plaintiff was a Caucasian male of European descent who was employed for three months in the defendant bank’s New York branch. After his employment was terminated, he sued, claiming, among other things, that the bank discriminated against non-Japanese employees based on race and national origin. As evidence, he claimed that “all important corporate issues were discussed exclusively in Japanese, even when non-Japanese speaking employees were present.” He also claimed that meetings were often “held exclusively in Japanese,” and so he could not participate in them or learn about the bank’s “priorities” from listening to the meetings.

The court held that even if the allegations were true, this did not constitute unlawful discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Instead, the discrimination was based on the ability to speak a particular language. The practice did not discriminate based on race or national origin because, as the court held, the employee “could have chosen to learn Japanese.” The court further held that while the employer was not “required to allow its employees to speak in their native tongue, it was not required to force employees to use a particular language.”

The decision is interesting and important because employees in the United States often claim that the use of a foreign language in the workplace by expatriate employees constitutes implicit discrimination against local employees. This decision confirms that foreign employers reasonably may permit their expatriate employees to continue to speak in their native language, and that this does not constitute discrimination per se.

The decision should be of comfort to foreign employers operating in the United States. Those employers cannot reasonably be expected to conduct all their business in English, and no law requires this. Nevertheless, as a practical matter, local employees can become frustrated when expatriates continue to speak their native language when among U.S.-based hires, because of the potential feelings of exclusion from important decisions and not being given the opportunities afforded to expatriates. To help avoid this perhaps natural reaction, foreign employers should be sensitive to this issue and try to conduct important meetings in English if local hires who do not speak the native language are present and are expected to contribute to the discussion. 

Further, there may well be circumstances, particularly where matters of employee safety are at issue or where it is critical that employees understand a concept to do their jobs effectively, where employers should be sure that all employees receive the communication—whether by voice or with a simultaneous translation, or a written translation to the employees’ language, whether English or otherwise.

A Japanese translation of this article is available here.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.