Manufacturing | Requiring employees to speak English

Manufacturing businesses are often made of a diverse workforce with workers of many different nationalities and backgrounds.

In this cases, employers may wish to impose a requirement that all employees in the workplace must communicate in English to ensure business efficacy and reduce misunderstandings.

You may also want to do this to promote good working relationships. Some employees may feel left out because they don’t understand what their managers or colleagues are saying or even think they are talking or gossiping about them. This can negatively affect staff morale and team dynamics.

But can employers restrict employees from speaking their native language in the workplace?

You can specify that English is the language of operation, but you do need to take care if you ban the use of other languages. Taking such an approach could be interpreted as indirectly discriminating those as those whose mother tongue is not English.    

An employee is indirectly discriminated against when a company’s policies, procedures or rules which apply to everyone has the effect that people with a certain protected characteristic are put at a disadvantage when compared with those who do not share it. You may be able to justify this if there is a real business need and it is a proportionate means of achieving this legitimate aim.

Realistically, it would be hard to justify this type of restriction if you try to prohibit the use of other languages during breaks or outside working time, for example, at after work events.

Equally, if an employee is really struggling to understand an instruction or needs to ask questions to complete a task, a quick conversation with their colleague in their native language can help clear up the confusion and ensure that they can get on with their work. If you use this to take action against them, for example, commence disciplinary action, it is likely that this will not be considered a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate business aim. 

How can employers support employees whose first language is not English?

There are a number of steps manufacturing businesses can take including:

  • Consider translating key policies and procedures in the Employee Handbook
  • Provide multi-language signs in the workplace
  • Think about providing free English classes

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You can discuss different options are suitable for your specific workplace with your EW Employment Law Adviser.

Final thoughts

If you do have any ‘policy’ in this respect, it is important that it clearly communicated to all staff so they understand the rules.  If you would have any questions on this area of law, contact your EW Employment Law Adviser who can guide you.