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April 23, 2018

Can I Insist My Employees Speak English?

“They have been at a great feast of languages,
and stol’n the scraps.”

William Shakespeare – Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5, Scene 1, 32-39

The English language is the most spoken in the world, utilised by the United Nations as one of their two main languages, and more widespread than any language in history, including Latin under the Roman Empire.

April 23rd, widely considered both the birthday and date of death of William Shakespeare, marks international English Language day, recognising the rich cultural history and modern utility of our new ‘lingua Franca’, or ‘universal language’.

And yet not everyone in the United Kingdom speaks English fluently, or even at all.

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

Where does the ‘English’ language come from

Britain has always been a multicultural region and the United Kingdom is made up of separate nations, each with their own history and language. Wales still retains Welsh as an official language, with not just signs but newspapers, radio and TV all featuring Welsh.

The term ‘English’ derives from the Angles, a sea-faring Germanic people who invaded the British Isles as the Roman Empire collapsed. Other settlers included Saxons, Jutes and Norse Vikings, and, as every school boy & girl knows, the Normans in 1066.

With the advent of increased immigration from former colonies and from across the European Union, other languages of even more distant origin have become more widely spoken: most notably Polish, but also languages from the middle east and Asia.

Can employers ask workers to stop speaking other languages?

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?

Can you insist on a minimum standard of English being spoken? And are there any dangers with employing people who don’t speak English at all?

As always with employment law (and health & safety), the answer is that it depends largely on the circumstances.

If you are employing people in customer-facing roles, it is reasonable to require that their English must be good enough to carry out that role.

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

learn more about the law, policies, and practical advice for managing languages in the workplace

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

In theory, it could be perfectly acceptable to hire people who do not speak a word of English, provided there is provision for communicating with them, such as through a bi-lingual supervisor. However, that can lead to valid concerns about the clarity of messages that reach the workforce, particularly when it comes to things as important as safety warnings.

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

Awards for ‘indirect race discrimination’ are uncapped, and start in the thousands of pounds.

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.

Moorepay customers should check any concerns they have over languages in the workplace by calling the Advice Line on 0845 073 0270 (select option 2).

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About the author

Philip Warnes

About the author

Philip Warnes

Employment Tribunal Consultant

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