How to deal with different languages in the workplace

Having multiple languages in the workplace can be useful, but are there any issues involved? Andrew Weir of Moorepay explains what you need to know.

The English language stretches across the world, and yet not everyone in the United Kingdom speaks English fluently, or even at all.

With an increasingly diverse workforce, employers may find themselves having to grapple with language issues that arise in the workplace and their legal implications.

So what should employers do when many languages are spoken in the workplace, and what do they need to be aware of?

Can employers ask workers to stop speaking other languages?

Picture this: you’re standing by the coffee machine in the office where a nearby conversation between your colleagues is in French, and you can’t help but wonder if your colleagues are talking about you.

As an employer, it will not be uncommon to hear workers conversing in other languages, but is it alright to ask them to stop and only speak English?

On the face of it, asking your workforce to be English speakers would be indirectly discriminatory as those who are not native English speakers are less likely to be able to comply with it. If however, the employer is able to show having an excellent English speaker is necessary for the satisfactory performance of the job, they should be able to objectively justify the requirement.

This will obviously depend entirely on the role. If, for example, the role is customer-facing, English speaking could be a necessity, whereas in a manufacturing role only basic English skills may be necessary.

Where two colleagues are talking about their weekend over the water cooler, it would not be reasonable to insist that they only speak in English.

However, if certain employees bonding over a shared language that is not English is causing discord within the office or resulting in others feeling alienated, employers must step in to avoid possible conflicts.

The responsibility lies with the employers to take the necessary measures to help those in question understand that while their intentions might have been benign, it can still result in colleagues feeling excluded.

What are the legal implications?

While employment laws do not cover workplace languages, the Equality Act 2010 protects employees and certain others against various types of discrimination which includes race. Race covers colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins.

The concept of ‘less favourable treatment’ on the grounds of race would be directly discriminatory and therefore unlawful. Furthermore, the amount of compensation for ‘indirect race discrimination’ is uncapped, and starts in the thousands of pounds.

Broadly speaking, if an employee is dismissed for not speaking English, they could argue that their dismissal was on the grounds of race and therefore they would not need the minimum qualifying service to bring an unfair dismissal claim.

Should the employer be able to objectively justify such treatment and show that the dismissal was reasonable in all the circumstances, the dismissal will not be considered unlawful.

Are there any downsides to employing workers who can’t speak English?

In theory, it would be perfectly acceptable to hire people who do not speak a word of English, provided there is provision for communicating with them.

As a first step, employers must consider what level of English may be required for the role (if any) and to be able to demonstrate why this level is required.

If only basic words need to be spoken and understood in English to perform the role, consider English language classes.

Interpreting facilities and bilingual supervisors could be another viable option. This may not be at any additional cost to an employer’s business as a number of employees are multilingual and could assist with interpreting at meetings. Various language apps that can be installed on IT equipment are also available, which can assist with communications.

Multi-language safety signs, notices and communications can be put in place – particularly for health and safety requirements. Health & safety breaches, if sufficiently serious, can even lead to jail sentences.

For these reasons, it is always important to make sure you are in receipt of expert advice in the relevant fields before you make any decisions or communicate any instructions to your staff on an issue such as this.

In conclusion

It is certainly likely to be difficult to justify imposing a particular language outside of working duties for example, after work at social events, during work breaks or casual conversations between colleagues.

Similarly, blanket rules or policies involving the use of a particular language within the workplace may also be difficult to objectively justify as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim unless there are good business reasons for it.

Workplace policies should be put in place (i.e. on equality, bullying and harassment) to deal with issues of exclusion and being respectful of others who do not share the same language. Training should also be provided on these policies.

Individuals should be reminded to consider the needs of others who do not share the same mother tongue and to encourage a common language to be spoken when undertaking work activities.

Get any of the above wrong, and the consequences can be extremely serious.

Andrew Weir is employer services manager at Moorepay

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