English In The Workplace

The Equality Act 2010 states that it is unlawful to discriminate or harass someone because of their nationality. In the case of Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) was asked to decide whether prohibiting an employee for speaking in her native language in the workplace was unlawful.

Ms Kelly, a Russian national, was employed as a Contract Analyst in February 2014. From the start of her employment, her line manager had concerns about her behaviour. She was often seen using her mobile phone at work, she would disappear into the bathroom with her phone for excessive periods and would speak on her phone in Russian. The employer was involved in animal testing and had previously been the target of violent attacks by members of the animal rights movement. The employer was, therefore, concerned that Ms Kelly was a member of the animal rights movement and had applied for a job in order to further its aims.  

Ms Kelly’s line manager told her that she should only speak in English in the workplace. Ms Kelly objected to this request on the grounds that other staff members were allowed to speak in their native language therefore the employer instructed that they too should speak English in the workplace.

Ms Kelly’s behaviour continued to raise concerns and she was invited to a formal capability meeting. She raised a grievance and subsequently contacted ACAS with a view to issuing a claim. During the course of proceedings, it came to light that Ms Kelly had a criminal conviction which she had not disclosed during the recruitment process therefore she was invited to a disciplinary meeting. She resigned and brought a claim for race discrimination and harassment.

Both the Employment Tribunal and EAT found that the employer’s requirement for English to be spoken in the workplace was not unlawful. The instruction had not been given in connection with Ms Kelly’s nationality and therefore did not amount to discrimination or harassment.

Each case will always turn on its facts, but employers can take some comfort that reasonable requirements, for legitimate business purposes, will be supported by the courts.

If you would like advice on the Equality Act 2010, please do not hesitate to contact Debbie Sadler on 0118 955 9607 or at d.sadler@hewetts.co.uk.

Published on 26/02/2016

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