Wurkplace Blog - Can you ask employees to speak English only at work?

Can You Ask Employees to Speak English Only at Work?

The world of work is a melting pot. Most employers recognise the benefits of a diverse workforce and seek to promote equality. Research shows that that around 8% of the UK workforce do not speak English as their first language. Those employees who do not speak English as their primary language are likely to speak a foreign language to other work associates of the same nationality, or to friends and family by phone whilst in the workplace. If you manage employees with English as a second language, you may be wondering if you can ask them to only speak English during work hours.

 

Compliance with discrimination legislation in the workplace is crucial. The significant financial penalties and negative publicity potentially involved where an employee brings a discrimination claim are a genuine risk. Compensation recoverable in the employment tribunal for a breach of the Equality Act 2010 (the “Act”) is uncapped.

The Act protects employees and others against discrimination on various grounds including that of race. Race includes colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins. Less favourable treatment because of race is unlawful direct discrimination. Unlawful indirect discrimination can be harder to recognise. It involves a practice which applies to all, but which puts people in a certain racial group at a particular disadvantage.

Only indirect discrimination can be objectively justified by an employer. Where an employer can show objective justification, the treatment will not be unlawful. Objective justification involves showing that the practice was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim i.e., showing that there was a good business reason for it.

 

Commonly Asked Questions:

 

Can I ask employees to speak English only at work?

Employers can legitimately require employees to speak English during certain times when justified by business necessity. For example, if needed for safety reasons and to speak with English-speaking customers and co-workers during work times.

So, where employees are being asked to work together in a scenario where speaking several different languages may introduce risk, such as manufacturing or construction, it may be acceptable to ask all employees to speak a common language. If English speaking employees do not understand what their fellow work colleagues are saying in a different language, they could feel excluded. Employers will need to be mindful of the risk of bullying and harassment within the workplace.

 

Is it rude to speak another language while at work?

Ordinarily, employers must allow employees to speak their native language during work hours, unless it interferes with reasonable and necessary business operations.

A rule requiring employees to always speak only English on the job, can violate the law, if it has been adopted for a discriminatory reason or if is not uniformly enforced, or if it is not necessary for conducting business.

ACAS, in its article ‘Race Discrimination Key Points for the Workplace’, advises that employers should be wary of limiting the use of other languages at work unless they can justify this with a ‘genuine business reason’.

 

Can employers have a Language Policy?

Employers may want to limit the use of other languages at work, by specifying that English is spoken in work-related conversations, or at all times in the workplace, for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • Employee or customer health and safety reasons related to the particular business.
  • For good employee relations – to ensure that employees don’t feel excluded or bullied if they can’t join in their colleagues’ conversations.
  • To maximise effective business communication with customers or internally.

If it’s necessary to implement a policy on spoken language at work, it is preferable for it to be a requirement to speak English, rather than a requirement not to speak a particular language or languages. If there is discrimination, it would be indirect, not direct, and could be justified. Consistency is key. There is a reasonable case to be made that speaking a common language is a huge health & safety benefit, for example in a hectic growing manufacturing company.

 

Can an employer require its employees to have excellent English skills?

On the face of it this would be indirectly discriminatory because those who are not native English speakers are less likely to be able to comply with it. However, if the employer can show having an excellent English speaker is necessary for the acceptable performance of the job they should be able to objectively justify the requirement.

 

Conclusion

It is extremely difficult to justify imposing a specific language outside of working duties for example, during work breaks or casual conversations between colleagues. In the same way, blanket rules involving the use of a particular language within the workplace may also be difficult to objectively justify unless there are good business reasons for it. The position will depend on the facts of each case and employer’s particular circumstances.

Here at Wurkplace, our HR consultants are happy to further discuss and support you with your individual case(s) and consideration (s). Our quarterly EL bulletins keep our clients fully up to speed with new legislation, and additionally, we can offer management development training modules that can be provided onsite at your convenience.

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