Is it discriminatory to be told to speak English at work?

Bray & Bray
Ian Lewis

Leicester has become a poster city for multicultural Britain. A recent study crowned Narborough Road as officially the most diverse high street in the United Kingdom – its shopkeepers originating from a staggering 23 different countries (and four different continents). With 55 mosques, 18 Hindu Temples, nine Sikh Gurudwaras, two Synagogues, two Buddhist centres and one Jain centre, Leicester has long been seen as a leading example of how modern Britain should work. We’re very proud to call Leicester our home, but, is it discriminatory to be told to speak in English at work?

Employee language barriers

With the increasing diversity of Leicester and the United Kingdom as a whole, most businesses now have employees who do not speak English as a first language. Whilst employees may understandably wish to speak in their native language to other colleagues of the same nationality, problems can arise when other employees feel excluded or managers are unable to understand what is being said. It is therefore vital that businesses understand what policies/requests will be seen as discrimination, and what constitutes a genuine business reason.

Genuine business reason

The Employment Appeal Tribunal recently upheld a decision that an instruction to an employee not to speak Russian at work was not direct race discrimination and not race harassment. The employer had a reasonable explanation for its actions which was unrelated to the employee’s nationality or national origins, this being that her English-speaking managers could not understand what was being said (which was particularly important in this case, given the sensitive nature of the employer’s business). This decision is in line with ACAS guidance which states that “employers should be wary of prohibiting or limiting the use of other languages within the workplace unless they can justify this with a genuine business decision.”

So what is race discrimination on the ground of nationality or national origins?

Discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status. An example of unlawful race discrimination in the workplace is a Polish teacher who was asked not to speak in her native language with fellow Polish colleagues during break times. Whilst the courts have often drawn the distinction between a requirement to speak a certain language at work rather than a requirement not to speak a particular language, the former generally being seen more favourably, there is little case law to assist employers.

Ian Lewis, specialist employment lawyer at Bray & Bray, comments:

“Surprisingly, this is an area with relatively little case law given the increasing diversity of the workforce and the potential for problems between employer and employee to occur. If an employer has good business reasons to justify implementing a language barrier at work, it should ensure that the policy is clear and applied consistently to all employees, of all nationalities. As this is a complex area of law and failure to comply with the Equality Act can have serious business consequences, I would recommend that employers seek legal advice if they have implemented, or are considering implementing, language policies in the workplace.”

Expert employment legal advice

For expert advice, call to speak to a member of Bray & Bray’s employment law team today on 0116 254 8871 or alternatively, you can email Ian Lewis directly at idlewis@braybray.co.uk