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Mind your words – insisting employees speak English at work

Mind your words – insisting employees speak English at work

Sports Direct is being investigated by the Welsh language commissioner for an apparent ban on staff speaking any language but English at their store in Bangor. The Sports Direct store, in north Wales, is located in an area where a high proportion of the population speaks Welsh on a habitual basis. A notice was posted on a wall of the store, telling staff to only speak English for health and safety reasons. The notice said that English was the "official language of the company" and staff speaking in languages other than English “can pose a variety of risks to the company, including health and safety issues arising out of not being understood by those around them." Sports Direct has said this was not the result of a directive from the company and an internal investigation is under way.

The Welsh Language Commissioner has also begun an investigation into whether the company had broken any rules under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which made it illegal for companies to stop people speaking Welsh to one another. The Welsh Language Commissioner has the power to publish direction notices and impose penalties of up to £5,000.

Language and the law

There are two issues employers must grapple with if they insist their employees speak English (or any other language) in the workplace:

  • Could it be discrimination under the Equality Act 2010?

Under the Equality Act 2010, employees and others are protected against discrimination on various grounds, including that of race and disability. Insisting on a single language in the workplace could constitute direct or indirect discrimination.

Although direct discrimination cannot be justified under any circumstances, indirect discrimination, can be justified if it’s a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. An example of this may be a superstore insisting that all its workers have excellent spoken English. This might be a justifiable requirement for those in customer-facing roles. However, for workers based in the stock room, the requirement could be indirectly discriminatory in relation to race or disability as it is less likely to be objectively justified.

  • Is there any specific legislation regarding the use of that language?

The situation is more complex in Wales where the Welsh language is specifically protected by several layers of regulations. Employers need to be aware that Welsh and English are on an equal statutory basis as the official language of Wales. The outcome of the Sports Direct investigation will be much welcomed guidance on what is considered unlawful or unjustifiable in Wales. In the meantime, employers in Wales should be conscious of whether their actions could be seen as suppressing the use of the Welsh language.

Although there are currently no similar provisions for other regional languages such Scots’ Gaelic, Irish or Cornish, this may change in Northern Ireland due to ongoing political discussions.

Care needs to be taken before imposing blanket rules regarding language at work. Consider if you could justify your approach to an objective outsider. And as always, good communication with employees is key to mitigating risks down the line – regardless of what language you do so in.