Sports Direct have been criticised once again after a notice sent out to the staff at the company’s Bangor store was widely reported. The notice stated that staff were reminded that English is the official language of the company and must be spoken at all times when carrying out work duties.

This has led many to claim the notice was “discriminatory”, particularly as it was issued in an area where there are many native Welsh speakers. Sports Direct have since apologised and have said they will investigate the incident.

Language policies are not themselves unlawful but their implementation needs to be carefully considered.  If you have a multicultural workforce, here are five things you should consider:

  1. Language is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010

Under the Equality Act 2010, protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity. Language is not a protected characteristic but a claim for discrimination based on language could be made under the protected characteristic of race.  Race refers to a group of people defined by their race, colour and nationality (including citizenship) ethnic or racial origins.

  1. What does Acas have to say?

Acas provides guidance for employers on managing the use of languages in the workplace. They advise that an employer can “specify a language of operation” but “should be wary of prohibiting or limiting the use of other languages within the workplace unless they can justify this with a genuine business reason.”

  1. Consider the rest of the workforce

If you are considering implementing a language policy, you should first consider the common language of your workforce.  In the case of Konieczna v Whitelink Seafoods, a Polish HR administrator was told they must only speak English at work despite many co-workers being Polish and not English speakers themselves. As a result, the administrator was forced to conduct an interview with a non-English speaking, Polish colleague in English, through the use of a translator.  The employer argued that the language instruction was on health and safety grounds.  The Judge held that it was “more likely to create a greater health and safety risk than reduce it.”

  1. What is the reason for the implementation of a language policy?

In order to implement a language policy, you must have a clear and non-discriminatory reason for doing so. If you can justify that a language policy is needed for a reason such as health and safety, which is a common reason, the policy may be deemed lawful. For example, where a workforce is dealing with dangerous machinery, a common language may be needed in order to ensure the safety of staff to reduce the risk of accidents caused by any language barrier.  If a justifiable reason for a language policy cannot be established, there is a real risk that the policy could be deemed discriminatory.

  1. When does the policy apply?

You should ensure that the language policy only applies while an employee is carrying out their work duties. An employee should usually be permitted to speak any language they wish during break times and claiming other employees may feel left out of a conversation has been found to be unsuccessful in some cases.

If you require any further legal advice relating to employment law, contact Farleys employment law solicitors on 0845 287 0939 or email us here.