Employees and the requirement to speak only English in the workplace

Posted in : Seamus Says - Employment Law Discussion on 25 September 2017
Seamus McGranaghan
O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors

Q. We would like to introduce a policy requiring all staff to speak English whilst at work, but our worry is that we can be accused of discrimination. So, what are the dangers of an English-only rule?

Seamus: This is an interesting question. We certainly seem to have listeners with good questions anyway. The position there would be, I think, that you do need to tread carefully. You need to be careful in the respect of making a solo requirement in relation to any employee speaking English. There would be circumstances and I think it’s all about a balance on this.

For instance, if you have a business in the hospitality industry, you might have a lot of people that are not originally from Northern Ireland, say, and they can be coming from other countries and there can be a lot of them working within the business. There might be a tendency for those employees to converse with their own language.

But it’s important certainly if they are having a client-facing role or a customer-facing role that the customers are feeling uncomfortable as well and it would be important that if there is a business operating and these employees are dealing with the public, that they’re doing so in a language that is considered to be fair for the customer and certainly to give the customer the best experience that they can have.

Certainly I don’t think that there would be any difficulties with employees maybe conversing in their natural language if they’re working in a back office job or something along those lines. But it does bring in to some consideration the impact upon other employees as well because you get in situations where employees are talking in their original language and they may be laughing and there may be an employee who doesn’t understand what they’re saying but maybe has taken a context out of that and feeling that they’re maybe laughed at or there’s some sort of issue arising there.

So, it is a careful one. It’s a balance that needs to be taken. I think that you always have to make that decision with your eye on what is our business, what are the circumstances of our business, what is the role that has been carried out by the employee. But I don’t think that it would be always fair to say that you have to speak solely in English.

Scott: I suppose the counter to that would be that the employer has to ensure that the employees understand particularly health and safety requirements but also other requirements of the job.

Seamus: Yeah.

Scott: I seem to remember a long time ago that the health and safety executive produced these picture card elements to show people in health and safety and different things. But the employer has to make sure that people can understand. So, maybe there’s an element of saying if English isn’t the first language, they might need interpreters and need more than just somebody saying, “Yeah, yeah.”

Seamus: That’s certainly... I have clients of mine that are on factory floors where they’re working with equipment and health and safety issues. Certainly, I know clients of mine that display both signage in English and in other languages as well just so that everybody is aware of it and also from the point of view of the health and safety play an important role, especially whenever there are accidents. It’s just about getting the balance right, I think, for looking at your workforce and applying.

It’s always one of my favourite words in the businesses I'm involved with is looking at things reasonably and rationally and looking at the overall picture here in terms of it, I just don’t think it’s as straightforward as saying, “No, you can only speak in English.” Also, presumably whenever recruitment is being done, there’s a certain level of understanding, possibly writing as well is required in terms of a language and you would anticipate that that is dealt with through the recruitment process as well.

This article is correct at 25/09/2017
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Seamus McGranaghan
O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors

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