Is it discriminatory to tell non-native English speakers not to speak in native language at work?

Is it discriminatory to tell non-native English speakers not to speak in native language at work?

In Kelly v Covance Laboratories Limited, the Employment Tribunal (ET) considered whether instructing an employee not to speak her native language was direct race discrimination.

The background

The claimant, Mrs Kelly was Russian. She worked in a laboratory that tested products on animals.

Soon after she started employment, her employer had concerns about her conduct and performance.

Given that the claimant disappeared for excessive periods of time to talk on her telephone. During these telephone calls, she would talk in Russian.

The laboratory adopted a policy stating that employees could only talk in English in the workplace because of concerns that she might be an animal rights activist. (The company had been infiltrated in the past).

By implementing this policy, managers would be able to understand all conversations taking place in the workplace.

Mrs Kelly resigned and brought claims for direct discrimination on the ground of race.

Direct discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably than another person because of a protected characteristic they have or are thought to have.

The decision

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) supported the Tribunal’s original finding that Mrs Kelly had not been subject to discrimination.

This was on the basis that the laboratory would’ve treated any other employee who gave them cause for concern by speaking any other language in the workplace in the same way.

What this means for you

This decision is not to be taken as authority that it will always be possible for an employer to ban employees from talking their native language in the workplace.

It was acknowledged that this was a potentially discriminatory act.

However, in this case, the EAT accepted that it was not the Claimant’s race or national origin which led the laboratory to ask that she refrain from speaking in Russian.

Rather it was her conduct in the context of the specific risks facing a business of the laboratory’s nature.

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