Employment Law Update - Was an instruction not to speak Russian at work race discrimination?

Published: 27/01/2016

In this case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) considered whether an employer’s instruction to a Russian employee not to speak her native language at work amounted to race discrimination or harassment.

Kelly v Covance Laboratories Ltd, EAT

The claimant was employed as a contract analyst by the respondent company, which carries out animal testing. The company had been the target of animal rights activists and had previously been infiltrated by activists working undercover.

The company had concerns about the claimant’s performance and conduct from early in her employment, and in particular was concerned by her conducting long conversations in Russian on her mobile phone during working hours. Her line manager instructed her not to speak Russian at work in order for her conversations to be understood. Her subsequent grievance complaining of race discrimination was rejected.

The claimant resigned prior to a disciplinary hearing and brought a number of claims against her employer, all of which were rejected by an employment tribunal. She appealed the tribunal’s decision in relation to her claims for direct race discrimination on the grounds of nationality or national origin and race harassment.

EAT decision
The EAT rejected the claimant’s appeal. It was satisfied that the company had a reasonable explanation for its actions that were not related to her race or nationality It had legitimate reasons, in the context of the threat from animal rights activists, to require conversations in the workplace to be conducted in English.

In a multi-lingual workforce, imposing a spoken English language requirement on employees is far from straightforward, and in previous cases it has been held to amount to unlawful discrimination.

The Acas guide on race discrimination states that states that: “Employers should be wary of prohibiting or limiting the use of other languages within the workplace unless they can justify this with a genuine business reason”.

In this case, the employer clearly satisfied both the employment tribunal and the EAT that it had good business reasons for justifying a language requirement at work. Employers who adopt a similar policy should make sure that it is clearly communicated to employees and applied consistently to employees of all nationalities.

The content of this article is for general information only. For further information regarding race discrimination, please contact a member of Birketts' employment team. Law covered as at January 2016.

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