How to Implement English-Only Speaking Policies

Last updated: April 27th, 2017

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 Equality Act 1998 – 2015, race discriminations claims can be raised on the grounds of nationality.

It is important that employers have non-discriminatory, objective justification for imposing an English-only speaking policy on employees. The inclusion of such a policy could be justified on the grounds of health and safety.

For example, in a factory where employees are operating heavy machinery, having a policy requesting all employees to speak English during working hours could help reduce the risk of accident due to language barriers.

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-only speaking colleagues, customers and supervisors who manage employees work performance could be justified due to business efficiency.

It’s important to note that although some companies may have objective reasons to have 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.

Consistency is a key element for employers who want to avoid receiving claims of discrimination.  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. The respondent had a long serving policy requesting the use of English during working hours. The respondents’ justification for the policy was inclusion, team coherence, health and safety and business effectiveness. 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 respondent had a ban on speaking Polish in the workplace, this ban included chat between shifts. The Equality officer directed the respondent to amend their company policy to allow a degree of small talk between shifts unless other workers feel excluded.

Claims of discrimination can be expensive 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. It is important that employers have objective justification for current policies in place, or seek advice prior to implementing a new English speaking policy.

If you have any questions in relation to English speaking policies in the workplace please contact our expert advice team on 01 886 0350.

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