Is it discriminatory to ask an employee to speak English at work?

No, provided that the reason why the request is being made is not due to the employee’s race, which includes colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins.

In the recent case of Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd, the Claimant, who is of Russian origin, was asked by her employer to speak in English rather than in Russian in the workplace. The employee asserted this to be discriminatory and brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal (‘ET’) against the research laboratory where she worked.

The ET heard that the employer had significant concerns regarding the employee’s performance and conduct, including excessive periods of time spent in the office bathroom and frequent use of her mobile phone. This led the line manager to wonder whether she was in fact an animal rights activist, a situation which the company had encountered previously and therefore asked her to speak English. The same request was also made of two Ukrainian nationals, following a compliant from the employee that she was being singled out.

The ET accepted that the instruction to speak English had nothing to do with the employee’s nationality. On the contrary, it was a direct result of the concerns raised by her behaviour. It was also accepted that employees who spoke any other languages would have been treated in the same manner had the same circumstances arisen.

This case reinforces the need for an employer to be able to justify and explain its actions, and in the event of a discrimination claim, to properly defend the claim by providing the ET with alternative reasoning for the alleged discriminatory action.

About Steve Young

Steve Young is the Managing Partner of Downtown Recruitment who are based in Thame, Oxfordshire. Downtown Recruitment provide a wide variety of temporary and permanent staff to the local area covering a wide range of disciplines across the commercial and industrial sectors. View Downtown Recruitment's main website
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