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Case law: Instruction to employee to speak English at work not discriminatory, if justified by circumstances

Employers should ensure that instructions to employees to speak in English at work are justified by the circumstances, and are not linked to their race or national origin, a ruling makes clear.

Legal Alert

This update was published in Legal Alert - February 2016

Legal Alert is a monthly checklist from Atom Content Marketing highlighting new and pending laws, regulations, codes of practice and rulings that could have an impact on your business.

A Russian-born employee worked in an animal laboratory. She kept leaving her work station and making mobile phone calls in Russian. Her employer became concerned she might be involved with animal rights activists and told her not to speak Russian at work. She claimed this was direct discrimination and harassment on grounds of her race or national origin.

The employer justified its policy by saying English-speaking managers needed to be able to understand employees' conversations for security reasons. The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) agreed that the policy had not been imposed because of the employee's race or national origin, but because of the nature of the work she did. This meant it was not direct discrimination. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the policy had caused her harassment.

The EAT said it was possible that banning use of a foreign language at work could amount to discrimination. However, in the circumstances of this case any other employee speaking a foreign language would also have been told to speak only English at work.

It rejected the employee's claim of an 'intrinsic link' between the employer's action and her national origin. The EAT said the employer's reason showed there was no specific link between the instruction and the employee's national origin.

Operative date

  • Now


  • Employers should ensure that instructions to employees to speak in English at work are justified by the circumstances of their employment, and not linked to an employee's race or national origin

Case ref: Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd [2015] UKEAT 0186_15_2010

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