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How one firm’s ambition to force its workers to speak English faces collapse

Employment partner Mark Higgins contributes to the reporting of a retailer’s rules to make staff learn English.

A decision taken by a Derbyshire-based firm to enforce English as the only spoken language at its Burton site has attracted the attention of employment law watchers and specialists.

The retail outfit Hobbycraft’s decision to ask foreign workers to speak only in English could also result in legal action, something commentators have been debating since the news broke of the firm’s linguistic initiative earlier in February.

The company’s position is derived from an internal policy that has been disseminated to employees, and applies to the working areas of the site. Employees are not required to speak in English during their breaks. The firm believes that harmonising the language used in the workplace will improve the fluency levels of many of its staff, leading to improved performance and productivity. However, some Hobbycraft workers feel that the practice is restrictive. Staff who are heard to be speaking in their native non-English tongues have also been threatened with disciplinary action.

Mark Higgins is an employment law expert and Partner at Ralli, solicitors based in Manchester. He feels that companies need to make themselves fully aware of the legal consequences of action enforcing behaviours onto their staff: Although the Hobbycraft business case here is most likely pursued with good intentions the desire to improve communication and understanding amongst staff there is a wider legal context into which the decision has to be placed.

The policy does have the potential to lead to discrimination and then to claims against the employer for disadvantaging their foreign staff. Recent cases have shown that the courts, although sympathetic to a company’s desire to enhance the performance of their staff, have tended to side with workers claims of discrimination in circumstances where the employer is unable to show that English is a specific and necessary requirement for a particular role.

The situation highlights the need for solid liaison with experts in employment law. At Ralli we offer a service that, for a fixed annual fee, gives employers direct contact with trained solicitors able to swiftly advise on any number of issues that relate to the legality of employer / employee relations. Getting the legal groundwork done prior to the introduction of any policies such as the case in point here can save businesses fortunes in avoiding expensive employment cases.