Sorry, I don’t understand…

In the recent case of Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd the Employment Tribunal decided that in some circumstances it is acceptable to ban employees from speaking their native language.

This may seem surprising in 2015 but maybe not so much to anyone who remembers the industrial espionage of the last century with monumental thefts, like the MZ motorcycle engine blueprints stolen by the defecting east german racer Ernst Degner.

The theft of industrial secrets and information has not gone away. Now more than ever information is vital to business success.

What about this recent case then?

Mrs Kelly, a Russian, was employed by Covance Laboratories Ltd who carry out scientific testing.Her employers had concerns about unusual behaviour and had prior experience with employees working undercover to stale business information.

Mrs Kelly’s unusual behaviour included frequently using her mobile phone at work and having long conversations in Russian on her mobile in the office toilets.

She was asked not to speak Russian at work in order that any conversations she had in the workplace could be understood by English-speaking managers. Mrs Kelly complained of race discrimination.

Surely discrimination can’t be lawful?

An instruction linked to an employee’s race or national origins can amount to unlawful direct discrimination and harassment.

However in this case there was a reasonable explanation for the instructions and its actions that were not related to race or nationality. The reason for the instruction was not because Mrs Kelly was Russian, but because of the suspicions Covance reasonably had about her behaviour in the industry in which it operated.

Taken in the context of Covance’s activities in carrying out scientific testing and the security requirements arising from this, it considered it important that conversations in the workplace were capable of being understood by its English-speaking managers.

So what can you do as an employer?

This case highlights a potential problem for employers. Having people speak a different language in the work place can clearly cause issues:

  • Other employees who do not speak that language who may feel excluded
  • There may be security risks relating to business practices and secrets
  • It may promote seclusion and division within the workplace

If you have good business reasons to justify a language requirement at work, you should make sure of the following:

  • that the requirements of the policy are clear
  • that it is applied in a consistent way to employees of all nationalities.
  • that the reasons for it are clear and justified

Whilst requiring people to speak or not speak a particular language is always going to be discriminatory it may be permissible with good reasons.

If you do want to enforce a language policy, and have valid grounds to do so, then as a matter of good practice it is likely to be viewed more favourably by the court if it is a requirement to speak a specified language rather than a requirement to not speak a particular language or languages.

Publisher: Graham & Rosen Solicitors

Graham & Rosen are able to advise on all employment matters and help with workplace policies. For more information contact Alex Green on