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Directing employees to speak English at work

Hi Bare Bones Consulting, we have a high percentage of workers from countries where English is not the first language. Some employees have expressed concerns that when these languages are used on the shop floor, not everyone understands what is being said…do we have the right to direct employees to speak English at work?

Hi back at you and thank you for your question…this one’s a situation facing many employers.

While cultural diversity (and diversity in general) has proven benefits in the workplace, one challenge can be integration across multicultural teams…particularly around language and communication. My first response when reading about your situation was around two opposite possibilities:

  1. whether certain employees speaking in a language other than English in a workplace setting might constitute exclusion of other employees and possibly be interpreted as a form of bullying
  2. whether a direction from an employer to speak or not speak a particular language in the workplace might constitute discrimination

I’m going to make the assumption that all employees on your manufacturing floor can speak English. I’m also going to assume your situation might have come about as a result of an employee (or employees) providing you feedback that certain staff speaking in their native language during working hours is either:

  • making them feel excluded from participating in the conversation; or
  • making them feel self-conscious that those speaking this language might be talking about them or other employees.

Such concerns raised by your employees could be considered valid if those speaking these languages can speak English and they are aware others in your team cannot understand these languages.

A 2002 case heard by the Equal Opportunity Tribunal of Western Australia involved two employees whose native tongue was Thai. From the outcome of this matter, you might take guidance that a directive from an employer to employees to speak English in the workplace can be issued lawfully, as long as the requirement is “reasonable”.

An employer may have the right to direct all staff to speak English, because:

  1. they can all speak English; and
  2.  the request is an attempt to resolve conflict and not related to race/ethnicity or origin.

Banning employees from speaking their first language all the time at work however might be unreasonable and may constitute racial discrimination.

It would be my suggestion that when issuing such a direction that you emphasise your instruction is made on a reason (or reasons) other than on the grounds of the employees’ race.

If you’re looking for an alternative to issuing a directive to speak English at work straight away, you might also consider:

  • whether or not to give these employees a structured opportunity to sort the issues out between themselves in the first instance, before issuing definitive employment directives
  • that it is reasonable to instruct staff to speak English when they are in the presence of other staff who can only speak English. On tea/meal breaks or when there aren’t other staff around, staff are welcome to speak in their first language, as long as this doesn’t exclude anyone.

Your communication with your team might also be accepted as being reasonable if you emphasise that a common language on the shop floor ensures not only a safer working environment for all but also contributes to the quality of your product: that everyone is on the same page throughout the manufacturing process.

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Note: Bare Bones Consulting provides HR services for employers. Employees seeking advice on workplace concerns should contact the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.