Foreign Languages in the Workplace

Christine Hart of KBL Solicitors reports that the Employment Appeal Tribunal (‘EAT’) has recently confirmed that an instruction to an employee not to speak Russian at work was not considered to amount to race discrimination.  

The case concerned a Russian speaking employee who worked in a laboratory that conducted animal testing. The employer had been targeted on a number of occasions by animal rights activists, which included violent assaults on its employees.

In addition to this, the employer was aware that a number of activists had managed to secure employment undercover in the laboratories in order to obtain information.   The employer became suspicious about the employee’s behaviour shortly following the commencement of her employment, in particular she was observed speaking first language of Russian on her mobile telephone in the toilets for long periods of time.

The employee’s manager became concerned that she may be one of the undercover activists working in the company, and as a result asked her to stop speaking in Russian during working hours so that he could monitor what was being discussed. This instruction was also given to a number of other Russian speaking employees within the company. The employee complained that she was the victim of race discrimination and harassment.

The EAT did not agree, and instead were of the view that the instruction not to speak Russian was issued directly as a result of the employee’s suspicious behaviour, and not due to her race. Further, in the circumstances, the concern that the employee may be an undercover activist was justified. It was therefore deemed that understanding what employees were saying in the circumstances was vital

Despite the decision, employees should not presume that the case outcome means employers can impose a blanket ban on the use of alternative languages in the workplace.  An employer must still have a good reason for imposing any language requirement. Whilst the case did not deal with the issue directly, it is doubtful that staff morale or ‘inclusiveness’ would be deemed to amount to a good enough reason.