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Can employees be made to speak English in the workplace?


It’s an interesting question. And possibly a very thorny issue for HR, especially in a city as cosmopolitan as Hong Kong – where Cantonese is the most widely spoken language but with English the default language in many offices.

In early 2019, German carmaker BMW made news when some of its Turkish employees working at one of the company’s German manufacturing plant were prohibited from speaking in their native language.

Apparently, the ban extended to the social areas where workers gathered in during breaks – meaning that employees were required to speak exclusively in German in the workplace. A union for the Turkish workers stated that this was an illegal practice and they would be in touch with BMW’s HR department as a result.

According to a spokesperson for BMW in relation to the matter, “The company does not dictate which language the employees should speak, but it places restrictions to speak German while working so that working instructions can be understood by everyone.”

While organisations might want employees to speak the same language at work – either for efficiency or safety – they should do so with caution, said Andrew Willis, head of legal at employment firm Croner.

“Imposing a requirement upon an employee not to speak in their first language could indirectly discriminate against them as it could place these individuals at particular disadvantage. It should be remembered that there is no limit on compensation for a discrimination claim,” Willis told the HR Grapevine website.

“Previous case law found that an employer’s instruction not to speak in their native language was not discrimination when it was done in response to suspicious behaviour seen from the employee, such as making frequent secret phone calls in their own language,” added Willis.

With specific reference to the BMW case, he went on to say that the carmaker may have reasonable grounds to argue that the action was necessary to guarantee health and safety. Willis added that the organisation should communicate this language requirement in its policies and employee handbooks and explain their reasons for doing so.

However Laura Giltrap, an employment and HR lawyer at Shulmans, struck a more cautionary note, saying that companies should be wary of banning employees from speaking their own language at work.

“It will likely constitute to unfavourable treatment because of something intrinsically linked to the employees’ nationality or origin. This will give rise to direct race discrimination claims, to which there is no defence. The employer would need to show that their reasons were unrelated to race,” Giltrap said.

Parts of this article were first published on the HR Grapevine website.

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