Should companies have the right to decide what language we speak in the workplace?

September 22, 2011 by totalityservices

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The media reported recently that logistics firm Unipart, who run Waterstones’ distribution depot in Burton upon Trent, have tried to impose rules on their Polish or Latvian employees banning them from speaking their native languages in the workplace. This action has led to the employees in question signing a petition against their bosses, arguing that the ban is discriminatory. The company has defended its stance by saying that employees would still be allowed to speak their native languages during lunch or other breaks, but that speaking these languages during working hours leads to other staff feeling alienated.

As someone who has spent plenty of time amongst friends who communicate in languages I cannot understand, I do comprehend to a certain extent where the warehouse bosses are coming from. It can feel very alienating and frustrating to be in the company of those we are trying to socialise or work with and not be able to understand what they are saying to one another. I’m sure there is a degree of truth in the company’s argument that they believe their teams would work together better if only English was spoken, and that safety would be less likely to be compromised.

However, at the same time, restricting the languages that people are allowed to speak is a repressive response, the kind of behaviour seen in authoritarian regimes such as in Spain under Franco, where the regional languages Catalan, Basque, and Galician were banned from being spoken. If these bosses are to properly respect the human rights of their employees, they can, at most, offer them guidance on language use at work. Guidance such as using their native languages for private or personal conversations and using English to communicate on topics related to work. But, failure to follow such guidance should not lead to punishment of any kind, and advice should only be given within the general context of suggestions for improving teamwork.

We live in a multicultural Britain, and all companies must adapt to this reality by ensuring that their employees can work well together in spite of possible language and cultural barriers. This requires training, tolerance and understanding, but it is vital to ensure that our workforce, which includes individuals from diverse backgrounds, can work together successfully.  If companies can offer their employees guidance on how to avoid language becoming a means of alienating others, this can be a positive thing  (should this guidance be given tactfully and does not enter the company’s rulebooks). Use of our native language, the one we communicate in most easily and most coherently, is a cornerstone of our freedom that deserves protection.

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