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