October 24, 2016

Why you need a language policy for your workplace [Q&A + PDF]

The diversity of the 31m members of the British workforce means people of different nationalities, languages and cultures are working side-by-side every day.

And with a significant number (8 per cent) not having English as their first language, employers often experience challenges in the workplace around the languages employees speak and need to be careful they do not discriminate (intentionally or otherwise) against their employees.

Compensation for successful discrimination claims at an Employment Tribunal is ‘uncapped’, meaning the potential ramifications for a business on the wrong side of a ruling could be very serious indeed.

In 2014/15 (the last year for which figures are available), the maximum award for race discrimination was £209,188.

Do you have a language policy? Has it been updated in the last 12 months? And what is your current position on speaking English (or any other language for that matter) in the workplace?

Here’s a quick Q&A to help you understand why you need a language policy, and what it should cover.

So what is the law around language in the workplace anyway?

The key law to consider is the Equality Act 2010, which gives employees protection from discrimination based on a set of protected characteristics, including Race discrimination (defined as colour, nationality, ethnic and national origins).

There are two types of discrimination – Direct and Indirect – and you need to ensure your policies and practices steer clear of both.

Download our Language in the Workplace whitepaper for more information on what these two types of discrimination are, and how best to avoid them.

What level of compensation could we have to pay in a successful discrimination claim?

As reported above, the maximum award for race discrimination in 2014/15 was £209,188, although the average (£17,319) and median (£8,025) figures give a better indication of your exposure in the event of a successful claim.

Is the requirement to have a certain language skill necessary?

In a word – potentially.

It could amount to indirect discrimination as the requirement to speak good English is likely to adversely impact on those who are not native English speakers, and who are therefore less likely (logically) to be able to comply.

An employer will need to show objective justification for the requirement.

In this instance, if the employer could demonstrate that the ability to speak a particular standard of English is necessary for the satisfactory performance of the position then that should be sufficient, but you should ask your employment law advisor or legal team to be certain.

FYI: The three main languages in the workplace after English

Polish – 546,000 (1% of the workplace)
Urdu – 269,000 (0.5%)
Panjabi – 273,000 (0.5%)

Can an employer insist employees communicate in a common language – ie. English?

Employers need to be careful again to avoid indirect discrimination by showing a legitimate business reason to use a common language.

Such reasons could be to improve health and safety (by ensuring everyone on-site understands processes and practices for example) or legal compliance (i.e. to ensure everyone understands how to comply with industry regulations).

Again, you’ll find guidance on how to justify a potentially indirectly discriminatory language policy in our new whitepaper.

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About the author

Stuart Clough

Stuart (MCIPR) is a trained journalist, writer and marketer with ten years' experience in B2B, public sector and employee communications. A former marketing consultant and agency client-lead, Stuart is responsible for communications and content at Moorepay.