Uspokojcie się! Banned from speaking Polish at work
Language in the workplace is a sensitive topic and one that more employers are being confronted with as people increasingly move between countries.
Should workplaces try to foster a common language? How should a workplace deal with an employee who does not speak the common? Does promoting a common language enhance communication?
If handled poorly, language policies can disrupt a workplace and divide a workforce. Two years ago, Fraserburgh-based Whitelink Seafoods experienced just this. Whitelink Seafoods is a multinational workplace with employees from at least eight different countries, including Poland, China and Lithuania. Two years ago, senior management introduced a rule banning the use of languages other than English at work, citing health and safety reasons.
When then HR administrator Magdalena Konieczna disobeyed the rule she was dismissed.
Before her dismissal, Konieczna was reprimanded on several occasions for speaking Polish with other employees. However, considering that many employees lacked even rudimentary English language skills, it is unclear what managers expected her to do. Konieczna has since taken her previous employer to an employment tribunal, citing racial discrimination.
During the tribunal, Konieczna recalled one back-to-work interview conducted with a factory worker who could only speak Polish. Due to the new rule, the employee was forced to bring along a friend to act as interpreter. A situation Konieczna described as “comical”.
Senior management attempted to defend the rule, citing health and safety reasons. Indeed, in a multilingual workplace, ensuring clear communication is a genuine concern. If there is a health and safety concern, say a fire, you must alert everyone in the quickest possible way. Replaying the message in twelve different languages is simply ineffective. However, this only works when everyone speaks a common language.
During the tribunal, HR manager Valerie Ritchie was questioned on whether the policy really could be justified on health and safety grounds. Asked whether the ban could endanger staff if they were unable to alert colleagues, Ritchie conceded the policy would not be enforced.
“If somebody was about to lose their hand I would not discipline them for speaking their language,” said Ritchie. “But if someone was showing a disregard, you would have to resort to disciplinary action.”
The response from employment judge Nicol Hosie was damning. Hosie blasted the explanation given by Ritchie, saying the policy was “more likely to create a greater health and safety risk than reduce it”.
Earlier this year, Konieczna was awarded £5,942 by the tribunal for racial harassment.
Looking at the case of Magdalena Konieczna, it’s difficult to understand how she was not more highly valued. In a company where so many different languages were spoken, bilingual people can help facilitate communication between employees.
Having someone who can translate and interpret ensures everyone receives the same message. This is not only essential for health and safety reasons but also the efficiency of the organisation.
For example, if Konieczna translated messages from management into Polish, employees immediately knew what actions to take and could get to work. If the employees were instead left to interpret the message for themselves, this could prolong the process and lead to misinterpretations.
On a more personal level, language is part of your identity and this is something employers have to keep in mind. By banning someone’s mother tongue, you could create a hostile working environment for your employees.