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Can employers force employees to speak English?


“Not valuing people’s distinct identities takes away their sense of belonging and hence [employers] lose talent. They will also lose revenue, when you consider that the share of their clients can only become more multicultural from now on.

“On a similar note, I would advise the [reader] to carefully consider going to another employer where their identities are valued and respected.”

As for whether this is legal, that’s complex, according to Professor Joellen Riley Munton from the University of Technology Sydney faculty of law. The first thing to work out is whether this is a company policy or the preference of an individual, such as a supervisor, for instance.

“I would suggest that if the employees concerned want to make an issue out of this, they first, very politely, seek confirmation of the employer’s policy in writing, from someone who definitely speaks on behalf of the organisation.”

If it does turn out that this is an official organisational rule or directive, it then comes down to whether “the employer has a good reason for it, related to the performance of the work”.

“That might include a reason related to trust and harmony at the workplace. An employer who insisted on this policy of nothing but English in the workplace would be taking the risk of a discrimination claim if they took any steps to discipline a person for breaking the rule.”

Munton said that the trouble with determining whether something like this is “legal” or not is that “an employer is unlikely to be breaking any law simply by asking people not to speak their own language at work. But they may break a law if they decide to punish someone for disobedience to that instruction.”

“While the employer might insist that it is an ‘inherent requirement of the job’ that communication among staff must be in English for work purposes, it is hard to see why break-time conversations would fall within that defence. Picking on someone for speaking another language in their break time may be found to constitute discrimination on the grounds of national extraction.”

Very kindly, Munton went into a lot of detail about your question. We won’t print every word here, but I’ve sent it to you in full. Suffice to say, the legal aspect is a nuanced subject. What’s perhaps not so complicated is whether this is a good place to work. It may be, and this could be a bizarre anomaly, but to my mind the suggestion that colleagues dob on each other alone is cause for significant concern.

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