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Can you repeat that?

Sprichst du Englisch? Parli inglese? Czy mówisz po angielsku? Parlez-vous anglais?

The above are examples of a simple question often used by us Brits when we’re struggling to find our way to the local bar when we’re off chasing some well needed sun! “Can you speak English?” is a simple and innocent question on holiday but back on UK soil and in the workplace this question has other implications.

On December 22nd 2016 the Immigration Act (2016) came into place which introduced the requirement for public sector workers who speak to the public as a regular and intrinsic part of their role to be fluent in English. This does not apply to the private sector.

Employers are generally entitled to draw up their own requirements however; they should make sure that the Equality Act 2010 is not breached. More specifically when requiring employees to speak English, the most obvious risk for potential discrimination is based on the criteria of Race.

A couple of cases to consider:

  • In 2010, an employment tribunal found that an instruction to a Polish worker not to speak Polish at work was direct race discrimination (Dziedziak v Future Electronics Ltd).
  • In 2015, the Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed that an instruction to only speak a particular language in the workplace could be discriminatory.

In practice, as long as an employee’s command of the English language is sufficient to perform their role the requirement for them to have perfect command or ‘better English’ may be seen as discriminatory. This also means that different job roles may require better control of the language. For example, sales representatives or your receptionist would be required to have greater command of the language than you would ask of a cleaner.

If you want to enforce the use of English in the workplace, or to ask for particular command of the English language during your recruitment process, it is important to consider whether the role requires interactions with the public/English speaking clients and if so what level of English is required. Asking for requirements above this may leave you open to the accusation of indirect or even direct discrimination.

For advice on this matter, or any other HR issues that may arise within your business, please contact the HR team on 01302 341 344.

By Kris Kerins Cert CII – Risk Services Adviser

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