Ireland has become an incredibly diverse country. A short stroll through Dublin City and you’ll quickly notice how cosmopolitan it has become. The wealth of different cultures brings a real buzz to the city and a host of original views and ideas to the workplace.
Migrants now account for an estimated 12.5 percent of the Irish population* and there can be no doubt about the significant contribution they make to the workforce. However, such a varied labour force also presents a number of new challenges for employers. Chief among these is enforcing a single language (usually English) usage policy. Indeed, many business owners are often left wondering if such a policy is even legal.
The short and sweet of it is yes…PROVIDED you can objectively justify its enforcement.
A great example of this is the recent case taken against McDonalds by two Polish workers on the grounds that its English only policy constituted discrimination based on race, which appeared in the papers just last year. The Equality Tribunal sided in favour of Kellydan Ltd t/a McDonalds based on the arguments it put forward that justified its English only policy, namely:
- from a health and safety perspective,
- from a business efficiency perspective and
- from an inclusion perspective
So how do you introduce and enforce a language policy that will keep you on the right side of the law? Here are three considerations for employers:
#1. Include it in Your Staff Handbook and Brief Staff
Any and all employment policies should be included in your company’s staff handbook and all employees should receive their own copy of the handbook. In this case you should state clearly that English is the operational language of the company. While you could argue that its inclusion in the staff handbook is enough, actively working to ensure all employees understand the policy being introduced and are aware of the implications associated with breaching the policy – through training, etc. – provides a much stronger defence if ever a case is brought before the Employment Equality Tribunal.
#2. Be Objective
The Cambridge Dictionary defines objective justification as “a legal reason that allows an employer to treat someone in a different way to other employees, especially relating to reasons of age, physical ability, etc.” At first glance, insisting that all staff speak one language, even if it is not their native tongue could appear discriminatory. However, as McDonalds demonstrated, the reasoning behind this policy was sound and in the interest establishing clarity and better communication between its 304 employees, many of whom are not native English speakers.
#3. Support Your Staff
McDonald’s supports staff, whose native language isn’t English, by providing access to paid for English classes and other training through English. This demonstrates the company’s commitment to employee development, investment in inclusion by promoting the use of one language regardless of nationality, and patronage of workers in line with its policies.
Very often these kind of activities fall under the remit of employee wellness, an increasingly important element of the human resources function today. Aside from strengthening your defence in such cases, it has been shown to lower attrition and boost employee satisfaction. And that generally means more productive staff.
#4. Document the Employment Process
In addition to demonstrating the objectivity of the policy, the respondents in the case mentioned above were able to refer back to their recruitment procedure, highlighting that it was carried out in English and that the claimants had indicated on their CVs that they had some standard of English. Adding this to my second point made a strong case against the complainants, which the Equality Officer herself felt did not support the complainants’ contention that they did not have a reasonable standard of English.
It is good practice to document your employment process, filing applications and CVs, recording any notes from interviews, etc.
#5. Be Flexible
Consistent enforcement of any company policy is important. However, a liberal approach to one such as business language is often best. In the case above, it was made clear that the policy was only enforced while on the shop floor and office areas, and that they were free to speak in their native languages in the canteen and during their break.
This is in-line with the use of English as your company’s business language. In situations where language is not pertinent to the effective running of the business staff should be allowed to communicate in the language of their choosing.
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