Q- My client has received complaints from some staff who feel excluded when two employees regularly speak to each other in their native language at work. What should they do about this?
A- Many organisations benefit from having a diverse and multicultural workforce. However, a common issue can occur, as in the example explained by your client, whereby certain employees feel excluded when colleagues regularly converse in their native language at work.
When faced with this problem your client must not dismiss it. They should instead hold a discussion with whoever is making the complaint to understand the impact this is having on their organisation. They should consider taking action if the employee fears that they are missing out on valuable work-related information as a result, or if this is creating a negative atmosphere at work.
At the same time, it is important that your client does not rush into a knee-jerk reaction and instead takes time to assess their options. It would not be appropriate for your client to simply place a total ban on these individuals speaking their native language in the workplace. Although language is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, this is closely related to the characteristics of race and nationality and could result in claims of discrimination being brought against them.
If your client feels it is necessary for individuals to speak English at work, then they may choose to introduce a blanket rule that requires all staff to communicate with each other in English during working time. However, your client should be aware that this could still indirectly discriminate against those for whom English is not their first language as it would place these individuals at a particular disadvantage. To justify this your client must be able to prove there is a valid business reason for requiring staff to communicate in English, such as to avoid serious miscommunications or to maintain employee relations. Even then it would not be appropriate to enforce this rule during designated break times or work social events.
Your client should also talk with the two employees in question before they introduce any rule. This will give your client the opportunity to understand if they are speaking in their own language because they feel uncomfortable speaking English if so this should be taken into consideration before making a final decision. In this situation, your client may wish to hold off on introducing an official rule and instead encourage staff to communicate in English wherever possible, whilst providing English language support to those who need it.
The situation facing your client is a complicated one and will need to be handled with care. It is important to discuss this matter with the affected individuals and weigh up the potential risks before settling on a response that would be considered reasonable under the circumstances.