Case study: Lost in translation

THE UK is becoming increasingly more diverse with many different nationalities, languages and cultures present in the workplace. Employers may want to consider whether it is reasonable to ask employees to speak English or indeed refrain from speaking their native language at work.

The government announced last year that public sector workers who deal directly with customers must be able to speak fluent English. These new rules form part of the immigration bill which requires workers to have language skills equivalent to a GCSE Grade C or above, although existing workers who aren’t fluent may be given time to improve.

However, as recent case law has proven, it is not always clear cut as to what is deemed to be reasonable employment practice, as these examples show.

Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd

BACKGROUND: Mrs Kelly is a contract analyst for a company that carries out animal testing. The company asks her to stop speaking Russian as they have concerns about her performance. They believe she displays unusual behaviour by having long phone conversations in Russian on her mobile phone in the toilets, raising concerns she might be an animal rights activists.

OUTCOME: A tribunal finds it to be reasonable to ask her to stop speaking Russian in the circumstances, especially since two other Russian-speaking employees are also told to stop.

Dziedziak v Future Electronics Ltd in 2012

BACKGROUND: Ms Dziedziak has a conversation in Polish with a fellow colleague and is subsequently reprimanded by her line manager and told “not to use her own language” at work. Ms Dziedziak provides evidence of personality conflict with the person who made the complaint.

OUTCOME: The Employment Appeal Tribunal finds that, in the absence of any company language policy, it is discriminatory to prevent the employee from speaking her own language in the workplace. Other international employees in the company are not subjected to the same restrictions and the tribunal rules that there has been an act of direct discrimination.

As you can see from the above cases, whether it is reasonable that an employee speaks in their own language very much depends on the company, their role, what level of English is required for the position and whether or not the company has a language policy.