[IPAC-List] foreign language as a minimum requirement for employment

Mark Hammer Mark.Hammer at psc-cfp.gc.ca
Fri Jan 9 15:43:12 EST 2009

We've been dealing with this for several decades, at least, in the
Canadian federal context. A large portion of our jobs, especially those
at higher levels, have a dual-language requirement. As one might infer
from your own comments, when language requirements are pursued in
isolation, they can conflict with other sorts of employment goals, such
as diversity. And that has been our experience here to some extent.
Both diversity policy, and language policy, make eminent sense, and
individually strive to be as fair and balanced as possible. But they
were each developed in isolation, rather than in an integrated way, so
we can find ourselves in situations where members of diverse groups
(using the Canadian definition) can find themselves screened out
disproportionately because they may speak two or more languages
fluently...just not the "right" two. And in the odd case, their first
language may counter-prepare them (syntactically or phonetically) for
acquiring one of the two official languages, but not the other. If you
can make a case for a second language requirement as a BFOR, then
"discrimination" will be inevitable, but no different than
discrimination on the basis of height, physical fitness, and a host of
other things we are familiar with here. In our case, the concern is
"How do you pay appropriate hommage to language AND diversity at the
same time?".

Something I should draw your attention to is a peculiar feature of our
own legal context here, which might eventually work its way towards you.
When one assumes that a person be fluent in two languages for the
position, without bias towards either of those two languages, then it
can become incumbent upon the employer to provide whatever employment
tests they use in BOTH languages. That sounds easy, initially, but in
our case, since the candidate has the right to choose which language
they wish to be tested in, scores from one language version of the test
need to be absolutely interchangeable with the other language version.
Heaven forbid that it gets out that "the French/Spanish/Italian version"
is easier/harder than the English version. One would be in the infamous
creek waiting forever for the paddle to arrive. Understandably, test
development is a more time-consuming and costly affair here because of
the requirement to have not only a translation, but a translation that
can be demonstrated to function identically.

I might point out that one of the reasons why dual-language fluency is
a common requirement of upper-level positions is not because it is
needed for clients, but rather because it is needed for dealing with
other staff. In my own work, I have to be fluent enough in French that
if someone in a planning meeting (who is conversationally competent in
English, but more articulate in French) wishes to convey a nuanced
concept, they can revert to the more effective language and I'll be
ready for it. Same goes for them. It is also assumed that one will
have employees in each official language who will have the right to
discuss matters with their supervisor/manager in the language of their
choice, and that if you're at head office, you'll be communicating with
internal clients and other managers in other parts of the country where
that second language will be needed.

Needless to say, since adding a 2nd language requirement brings with it
a truckload of implications, the task of classifying language
requirements for positions occupies the work of many people here. It's
not just a yes-no decision, either. Federal positions are classified
with respect to the specific level of fluency required for speaking,
reading, and writing.

Finally, to the extent that dual-language fluency is a property of many
higher-level positions, 2nd language requirements have been gradually
moved down to lower and lower positions so that a cadré of
"bilingual-ready" feeder groups is in place for replacing those in
senior positions who are retiring.

Of course, our own legal context arises out of historical circumstances
that do not mirror your own. I would imagine any decisions to be made
about dual-language requirements will be made differently in your

Mark Hammer

>>> "Pluta, Paul" <ppluta at hr.lacounty.gov> 09/01/2009 3:16 pm >>>

I have been seeing bilingual as a requirement for employment
increasingly over the past few years. What if such a requirement
results in adverse impact for different groups based on national
What are the criteria for defensibility in terms of the
of the requirement? Is this requirement most often based on a
necessity" or "customer preference"? Does anyone know if this
requirement has ever been challenged in court? It seems to me that
organization that does business exclusively within the borders of the
United States (excluding some territories, such as Puerto Rico) would
only be imposing the requirement based on customer preference.
multinational corporations that conduct business on a regional or
scale may be able to make a better argument for business necessity.
Where is the line that divides customer preference from business
necessity in this situation? Are there any thoughts, experiences, or
opinions anyone would like to share?

Paul E. Pluta, MA, SPHR

Human Resources Analyst III

Los Angeles County Department of Human Resources

Workforce Planning, Test Research, & Appeals Division

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