Having a diverse and multilingual workforce can bring a range of benefits and challenges to any business and there may be times when you ask yourself, ‘Can we just ask all employees to speak English in the workplace?’. Well, as is often the case, it’s complicated. This very much depends on the reason you want to make this request and who it applies to and when.
We’ll take a few scenarios and discuss relevant justifications for asking employees to speak English in the workplace and suggest other more inclusive approaches to encouraging a good working culture amongst multilingual employees.
Legitimate reasons to ask employees to speak English in the workplace
Health and Safety
Where employees are being asked to work together in a scenario where speaking several different languages may introduce risk, such as manufacturing or construction, it may be acceptable to ask all employees to speak a common language. In some cases, if all employees share a first language, it may make sense for the business to allow employees to speak the language in which they are most proficient. Employers should consider the makeup of their team and try to enforce rules consistently across all employees.
There are clearly situations, for example in a customer facing role, where the ability and willingness to speak English in the workplace might be required and can therefore be mandated by the organisation. In this case, it will be difficult to justify asking these same employees to speak English during break times as this will not impact safety or their job performance.
In the case of Jurga v Lavendale Montessori Ltd, a race discrimination claim succeeded when the company asked Polish speaking employees to speak English in their breaks but did not expect the same of employees speaking Italian. Companies should ensure then that all rules that are implemented are justified and apply to employees of all nationalities equally.
The most important thing to consider when asking whether you should/ can ask employees to speak English, is being sure none of your actions can construe discrimination against employees from any nationality. Language can be considered part of Race (which covers colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins) under the Equality Act 2010, so employers must ensure that any steps to reduce first language usage at work are justified and respect employee’s rights.
So, what ways can we support employees to speak English in the workplace and encourage inclusivity without negatively impacting workers whose native language isn’t English?
- The best way to support your employees to embrace English in the workplace is to give them the tools and training needed to build their confidence to speak English in work scenarios, as well as socially. For organisations with a diverse workforce, FlashAcademy offers flexible, remote workplace English Language training. Customised content about your organisation allows employees to learn about your business and helps staff understand vital health and safety information to ensure compliance. The result of this one-of-a-kind platform is a more integrated, productive workforce and a safer workplace for all employees.
- Your language policy could specify that English is the language of operation for your business, rather than banning any specific language.
- Allow employees to speak their language of origin during their downtime but ask that employees be aware of language restrictions of other colleagues who may not share their first language. In a case where staff have different home languages, English should be encouraged as a lingua franca to make sure no one is left out. Again, one of the best ways to support this is to invest in the English skills of all employees.
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