Translating Your Employee Handbook And Other Key Documents

By Kevin Rivera on April 23, 2018

I’ve previously written about the importance of distributing employee handbooks, employment arbitration agreements, confidentiality agreements, and other required new hire documents to your workforce. However, if you have employees who have little English literacy, it is important that you also provide translations of these key documents to your non-English speaking employees.

Employee Handbooks

Employee handbooks should always have an acknowledgment form at the end that employees must sign and return to confirm their receipt of the handbook and acknowledge their at-will employment status and that they must read and comply with the handbook’s policies.  This doesn’t do much good if the employee cannot read the handbook and does not understand the acknowledgment form they are asked to sign.

The employee handbook should contain key policies like those on meal and rest breaks, reasonable accommodations for disabilities, and how to report harassment and discrimination. If you are ever on the receiving end of an employment-related lawsuit, you will want to be able to point to the employee handbook and ask the employee why he or she didn’t adhere to your written policies.  This will be of little help if the employee cannot read English.

Most translation services will charge per word, and depending on the size of your handbook, the cost for translating it into another language could run into the thousands of dollars. If translating the entire handbook is cost-prohibitive, there are specific policies that you should provide translations for, and others that you are required by law to translate.

Policies that should be translated given their importance and because they concern heavily litigated areas in California:

  • Employment At-Will
  • Meal and Rest Breaks
  • Reasonable Accommodation for Persons With Disabilities

Policies the law requires must be translated if 10% or more of your workforce speaks a language other than English:

  • Policy Against Harassment, Discrimination and Retaliation (including investigation and complaint procedures)
  • Family and Medical Leave (applies to employers with 50 or more employees only)
  • Reasonable Accommodation for Employees Disabled by Pregnancy, Pregnancy Disability Leave or Transfer

The law requires that these policies must be translated for 10% or more of employees whose “spoken language” is not English.  Therefore, even if employees have some limited proficiency in English, if they mainly use another language to communicate, include them in assessing that 10% figure.

I would also put each of these policies in the “should be translated” list, even if your workforce doesn’t meet the 10% threshold.

Arbitration Agreements and Other Agreements

Arbitration agreements are very valuable in keeping employment cases out of court where juries are predisposed to finding in favor of employees and awarding substantial damages awards. However, if the employee who signed your arbitration agreement can’t read English, then the agreement he or she signed isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.  The case law on this is nearly unanimous that employers cannot enforce arbitration agreements written in English against employees who have little proficiency in English.

The same goes for confidentiality agreements and severance agreements.  If you obtain a signed severance agreement that contains a release of claims in English, and the employee was unable to read it, that employee may later ask a court to invalidate the agreement so they can sue you for employment claims. And on top of that, they will have no obligation to return the severance pay to you!

You should be aware that just because an employee may have some proficiency in speaking English, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can read it.  Therefore, when in doubt, provide both the English and translated versions of the documents.

Employer Action Items:

  • Does a significant portion of your workforce speak a language other than English? If so, consider obtaining a translation of your employee handbook, as well as the employee acknowledgment form. If the translation costs are too high, then provide separate translations (and obtain signed verifications) for key policies.
  • Does 10% or more of your workforce speak a language other than English? If so, then you are required by law to provide translated policies on harassment, discrimination and retaliation; family and medical leave; and reasonable accommodation, disability leave or transfer for pregnant employees. Make sure to obtain signed verifications for these policies also.
  • Do you require employees to sign arbitration and/or confidentiality agreements? You must provide translated versions if you want to enforce these agreements against non-English speakers.
  • Do you have a standard severance agreement that you provide at termination? (Technically, you should have two – one for employees 40 and older, and one for employees under 40.)  Don’t bother giving these to non-English speakers unless you provide a translated version in their spoken language.

Posted in

Application & Hiring, Arbitration, CA Employee Handbooks, Confidentiality & Privacy, Harassment & Discrimination, Leaves of Absence, Meal & Rest Breaks, Reasonable Accommodation