Hobbycraft’s recent decision of asking its foreign workers in Burton to only use English during working hours might lead to legal consequences, says the Daily Mail.

During a meeting held last week, the management of the company informed its staff that an internal policy advised workers to only use English whilst conversing during working hours. Employees were also told that those who did not comply with the request would face further disciplinary actions. The policy, however, only applies to working hours in the warehouse and does not include breaks in social areas.

According to the Hobbycraft, such a decision is intended to promote a good working environment, improve productivity, and avoid misunderstanding among the workforce. Besides that, fluency in English is required as part of the recruitment criteria and deemed necessary for a correct job performance. Some foreign staff, however, seem to think differently and judge the measure restrictive. They also argue that whereas previously workers who were caught conversing in their native languages would have only received an informal warning, tolerance has recently been reduced with the threat of disciplinary actions.

Notwithstanding the reasonableness of Hobbycraft’s intention, the policy can potentially lead to indirect discrimination and compensation claims, on the basis that it puts foreign workers at disadvantage for not being able to use their native languages.

In theory, the less favourable treatment can be justified by employers on the ground that adequate fluency in English is necessary for H&S or improved performance reasons. The matter is however more complex and it requires a case-by-case approach. In the recent case of Dziedziak v Future Electronics Ltd, for instance, the EAT considered the circumstance of a Polish employee being forbidden from using her mother tongue at work as an act of direct discrimination. The decision was motivated on the basis that the employer’s request was applied selectively and did not include the rest of the staff.

On a similar note, the judge in the Franco v Fyffes Group Ltd case held unreasonable that two foreign workers should be restricted from communicating in their own language if the conversation does not involve other employees who do not speak that language.

The precedents above hence recommend employers that a consistent approach is needed and that policies involving the use of a particular language within the workplace need to be justified on the grounds of good business reasons. With the labour market becoming increasingly globalised and the workforce increasingly diverse, it is likely that more businesses will have to deal with the same issue in future.

Article by Sergio Russo, HRreview journalist