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Instruction to speak English wasn’t discriminatory

Kelly v Covance Laboratories

It can take a brave employer to ban the use of certain languages in the workplace. But in this case, the employer was found to have a legitimate reason for insisting on English-only.

Russian-born Ms Kelly worked at a lab that carried out animal testing. After being told that she was not allowed to speak Russian at work, she brought claims including race discrimination against her employer.

The reason this claim failed at tribunal and at the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) was because the instruction to not speak Russian at work was not about race or national origin; it was about security. Covance had been the subject of unpleasant attention from animal rights activists and was concerned by Ms Kelly’s behaviour. She used her mobile phone at work, disappeared into the bathroom with her phone for excessive periods and spoke on her phone in Russian. There were fears that she might be an animal rights infiltrator and it was felt necessary that English-speaking managers in the business could understand conversations that were taking place.

Although it can be discriminatory to impose certain language requirements at work, in this case another employee in similar circumstances, speaking another language (apart from English), would have been treated in the same way as Ms Kelly. There was no discrimination.

Her harassment claim failed on the same basis: the instruction to not speak Russian wasn’t given because of Ms Kelly’s race or national origin. It was because of her behaviour in the context of her employer’s operations and the risks it faced. In addition, the instruction didn’t have the effect or purpose of violating Ms Kelly’s dignity or creating an adverse environment for her (essential elements of harassment).

Treat this case with some caution. You’d need a really good business reason that justifies a restriction or ban on the use of certain languages at work. And you’d need to apply your language requirement fairly across your workforce, underpinned by a clear policy.