Where an employer has groups of employees of foreign origin is it acceptable to ask them to communicate in English while at work?

Yes, to a limited extent. There is a clear business interest in having a common language in the workplace. It may help to avoid misunderstandings that could have serious consequences for the organisation (whether of a legal, financial or health and safety related nature) and is conducive to good working relations, provided that all employees can speak the language. English is likely to be the preferred language of communication in most workplaces, although in Wales many businesses operate in Welsh.

Even if English is the preferred language of communication, employers should make sure that rules involving its use do not amount to indirect race discrimination against a worker. While employers may be able to justify a rule requiring work-related communication to be carried out in English as being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate business aim, a blanket rule requiring all communication to be in English is unlikely to be justifiable. For example, there is no business reason why employees should have to speak in English during their work breaks or otherwise outside working hours. Even during working hours, a prohibition on informal, casual conversation in a language other than English is likely to be unjustified, particularly if some workers have problems with the English language or speak very little of it.

The Equality Act 2010: employment statutory code of practice provides that where a workforce includes workers who have difficulties speaking English, the employer should consider taking reasonable steps to improve communication. Such steps might include providing training in language and communication skills, or providing interpreting and translation facilities, such as multilingual safety notices to ensure that all workers understand health and safety requirements. The code can be used in evidence in legal proceedings brought under the Equality Act 2010, and courts and tribunals must take account of any part of it that might be relevant to a question arising during those proceedings.