How to Implement English-Only Speaking Policies

Last updated: May 17th, 2023

First published: April 27th 2017
Last updated: May 17th 2023

How to Implement English-Only Speaking Policies

When managing a multi-cultural workforce, dealing with different languages can prove challenging for many employers.

Although language is not a protected characteristic under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015, race discrimination claims can be raised on the grounds of nationality.

To ensure your organisation is complying with employment equality law, it’s important to have non-discriminatory, objective justification for imposing an English-only speaking policy.

Examples of objective justification

Health and safety

Health and safety for instance may be an objectively justifiable reason for implementing an English-only speaking policy.

For example, in a factory where employees operate heavy machinery, a policy requiring all employees to speak English during working hours could help reduce the risk of accidents due to miscommunication or language barriers.

Operational effectiveness

Business effectiveness, inclusion and team coherence could also be used as a potential justification. A rule that requires employees to speak English in the presence of English-speaking colleagues, customers and supervisors who manage work performance could be justified due to business and operational effectiveness.

Is it legal for employers to require staff to speak English during break times?

It’s important to note that while you may have objective reasons to implement an English-only speaking policy, the policy should allow for employees to speak in their native language when communicating with colleagues during a break or between shifts. Having a policy that strictly prohibits employees from having any casual conversations during working hours could be seen as discriminatory.

Caselaw on English-only speaking policies

Consistency is the key element for employers who want to avoid receiving discrimination claims. Once an English-speaking policy is rolled out, it should apply to all employees.

A race discrimination claim succeeded in the case of Jurga v Lavendale Montessori Ltd because Polish-speaking employees were reprimanded for speaking Polish to each other on their breaks, while Italian colleagues were able to speak Italian during breaks without objection.

In the case of Kacmarek & Ors v Aer Lingus, the claimants were Polish employees employed as catering assistants. The claimants worked together as a crew on Aer Lingus flights. Aer Lingus had a long-standing policy requiring staff to use English during working hours. Aer Lingus successfully defended the claim by citing inclusion, team coherence, health and safety and business effectiveness as justification for the policy. They also stated the complainants suffered no detriment due to the policy. The Adjudication Officer dismissed the claim and held the policy was objectively justified.

In Zdzalik & Rospenda v Helsinn Birex, the employer attempted to enforce a policy preventing staff from speaking Polish in the workplace. Importantly, this ban on Polish included break times taken between shifts. The Equality Officer directed the employer to amend their company policy to allow a degree of small talk between shifts unless other workers feel excluded.

Eliminate the risk of discrimination claims

A discrimination claim is an expensive risk for employers. Compensation of up to two years’ remuneration can be awarded to claimants for both harassment and victimisation i.e. up to a maximum of four years’ pay. A claim will also divert management time away from key priorities.

It’s important therefore that you know what will and what won’t amount to objective justification for an English-speaking policy before putting such a policy in place.

If you have any questions in relation to English-speaking policies in the workplace or any aspect of employment equality law please call one of our experts on 01 886 0350 or leave your details here and we’ll call you back.

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