Lost in Translation: can employees be instructed to speak English?

11 January, 2016
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

do you speak EnglishDo you have employees who don’t speak English as their first language? Do those employees speak their first language with colleagues of the same nationality or on the telephone to family and friends whilst at work? The use of different languages in the workplace can be a benefit, but it can also cause problems: it can make other employees feel excluded or bullied; and it can create management difficulties. However, requiring an employee to speak only English may be race discrimination if the employer is unable to justify the requirement with genuine business reasons.

In the case of Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd, the EAT held that a Russian employee, who was instructed to speak only English at work was not discriminated against.

Ms Kelly worked in a laboratory involved in animal testing. Her employers became concerned when she frequently left her work station and spoke Russian on her phone. They worried that she might be an animal rights activist. For security reasons they therefore instructed her to speak only English whilst at work as this allowed her managers to understand her conversations. Ms Kelly claimed this amounted to race discrimination. The EAT decided that her employers had a legitimate reason for implementing the requirement that only English be spoken in the workplace (their security concerns) and the reason was not related to Ms Kelly’s nationality.

There are a number of good business reasons why an employer will want to instruct their workforce to speak only English whilst at work. Examples include:

  • Where the business requires a common ‘language of operation’;
  • To minimise confusion, particularly regarding legal / financial / health and safety issues;
  • Where it is necessary to understand employee conversations in the workplace for security / confidentiality related reasons (as in Kelly); and
  • To promote cohesion within the workforce and prevent English speaking employees feeling excluded or harassed.

If you have good business reasons to justify a language requirement at work, you will need to ensure that they are set out clearly in a policy. The policy must be applied consistently to employees of all nationalities. Failure to adopt this approach could leave you open to a race discrimination claim.