Is Asking an Employee to Speak English at Work Discrimination in the Workplace?

Jan 19, 2016
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has decided that an instruction not to speak Russian in the workplace did not amount to discrimination or harassment (Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd).

The claimant, of Russian national origin, was employed as a Contract Analyst by Covance Laboratories Ltd, a multinational company operating a testing laboratory, which undertook work involving the use of animals for testing products and as a consequence had attracted the attention of animal rights activists. 

Covance Laboratories was concerned that it may be infiltrated by persons involved in the animal rights movement and therefore became concerned when the claimant began using her mobile phone at work, disappearing into the bathroom with her phone for excessive periods and speaking on her phone in Russian. As a consequence, the claimant was asked not to speak Russian at work, considering it important that her conversations could be understood by English speaking managers. 

The claimant claimed that the instruction to speak English amounted to direct discrimination and/or harassment.

The EAT confirmed the stance of Employment Tribunals that it would be possible for such an instruction (where linked to an employee’s race or national origins) to amount to an act of direct discrimination and/or harassment. However in the circumstances, the instruction had also been given to the claimant’s Ukrainian colleagues and would have been given to any other employee speaking another language which gave the employer cause for concern. The instruction was explicable by the employer’s concerns about the claimant’s conduct in light of the very real risks to the business. 

In respect of the claim for harassment, it was similarly dismissed by the EAT on the basis firstly that the instruction to speak English was not because the claimant was Russian and secondly because in any event, the instruction did not have the relevant purpose or effect of either violating the claimant’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

Gary Smith

About the author

Gary Smith

Gary joined Nockolds in 2007 and is a Partner in our Employment Law Team. Before joining the firm Gary studied law at the University of Kent. ...

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