Language Barriers at Work

Employing people from different backgrounds and with different experiences can help to achieve a more diverse workforce. Individual differences, including languages, if managed correctly, can contribute to business success by bringing fresh ideas, more creativity, and a broader perspective.

By reflecting the local population, or your existing and potential customer base, you may be able to provide a better service/product. The question is how to effectively manage these differences.

Communicating to your employees if English is not their first language

It is particularly important that health and safety instructions are fully communicated so that all workers understand and follow these. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HASAWA) requires that employers provide employees with a safe place of work and sets minimum standards for all business premises.

If you have five or more employees, you must have a written health and safety policy, and produce risk assessments and method statements. Specific risk assessments are required in certain circumstances, including for workers who speak different languages.

Employers have a further duty imposed by the Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 to post notices in English and in any other language in common use at the place of work, giving the location of first aid equipment and facilities and the name(s) and location(s) of first aid personnel.

Policies and procedures

You should have written policies and/or procedures in place that can be understood by all staff. Policies set out the rules that apply to your employees and the standards expected of them and explain how individuals will be treated in particular circumstances.

Many are governed by statutory requirements (for example disciplinary and grievance procedures, entitlement to maternity and adoption leave); others are put in place to ensure consistent treatment and standards.

When an employee joins your organisation, he/she should be made aware of the policies in place. If you employ people whose first language is not English, you may want to explain the main policies to them in a way they will understand, or consider translating the policies for them.

A lack of understanding of English or a failure to explain your expectations to an employee who only speaks limited English can lead to poor performance or a failure to comply with your policies and procedures.

Equally important is that all other employees understand the requirement to treat all colleagues with dignity and respect and to be aware of your standards and expectations regarding behaviour and language.

Ensure that your employees are aware of your equal opportunity and bullying and harassment policies, that they know what is acceptable in the workplace, and also what to do if they believe they have been discriminated against or harassed.

This is often best done at the induction stage, followed up by reminders and updates when necessary. Ensure also that your managers and supervisors are properly trained and can handle grievances and complaints relating to alleged discrimination or bullying/harassment.

Steps to take:

You must first be aware of what languages are in use at your workplace and whether any of your staff speak other languages fluently (and therefore could help with translations etc). Information about who speaks what could possibly be taken from your application forms if you have an equal opportunity monitoring form which includes a reference to language skills.

Alternatively, you could run a survey to capture this information or, if you are a smaller organisation, managers of each team should be able to provide the information.

The HSE provides leaflets and posters in a number of different languages and formats.

In terms of your own documents, and in order to help your employees understand any written or verbal instructions, consider whether you need to provide translations of any of these or whether it would be sensible to issue hard copy versions so that employees can take them home to read at leisure and come back to you with queries about anything they don’t understand.

If translations seem a good idea and you do not have the resources in-house, then it may be worth investing in translation software, or using contractors for this purpose. Warnings and instructions that are pictorial (rather than words) may also help, and videos can also help employees who understand conversational English but struggle with the formal wording of a written policy.

Managing poor performance of those who do not speak English as their first language

Poor performance is most often due to capability but, where English is not the first language, may be due to misunderstandings as to what is expected, or confusion regarding written or verbal instructions.

So, if you have an employee who is not performing to standard, the first step would be to meet with him/her and discuss the areas you’re not happy with. Does he/she have a job description, is it up to date and accurate? Does he/she understand what is expected?

Are the duties expected realistic or do they need to be reviewed? Whilst this may be fairly straightforward for English-speaking employees, it can be more difficult for someone whose first language is not English and you will need to consider how you explain the duties and standards expected, and where he or she has failed to meet those standards.

If the employee is new to the organisation, it may be that you just need to reiterate the standards and give him/her a little longer to get it right.

In any situation, if there’s a breakdown in communication because of a language barrier, there are steps you can take, for example:

  • Are there any other employees within your organisation who speak both languages? Could one of them sit in on counselling sessions with the employee in question to help with translations and explanations?
  • Could the employee shadow a more experienced employee so that he/she is shown practically what’s expected rather than informed verbally?
  • Are there any DVDs available for the employee to watch that demonstrate the required skills?
  • Does the employee have a friend or relative who could attend the meeting to help with translation? Your local Jobcentre Plus may be able to offer help and support in this area, or provide you with details of an organisation that can.

It is common to involve interpreters in any disciplinary or grievance situations if the worker’s grasp of the English language is not fluent and indeed this would be seen as forming part of a fair procedure.

Occupational testing – language considerations

Tests can enhance the recruitment process or contribute towards management development by providing additional information, and are therefore suited as part of a process, not in isolation. If you use tests, do ensure the test you are using is appropriate and non-discriminatory.

A basic exercise to test an applicant’s maths skills, if this is required for the job, is usually fine, as maths is universal. However, if you have candidates/employees who do not have English as their first language or their cultures are very different to the UK, consider how useful the results of the test will genuinely be and whether good spoken/written English is essential to the job role.

Tips and pitfalls

A few tips:

  • Remember that discrimination laws cover the whole recruitment process. A structured process, backed up by clear documentation, provides an audit trail which could be vital if you have a claim against you. Your role is to discriminate between the candidates but only on the basis of their suitability for the job and nothing else.
  • Always follow a fair and consistent procedure when dealing with your employees, whatever their background.
  • Fully consult with your staff before you introduce any new rules, so that you can check the likely response and the impact of these. Ensure that your rules are proportionate.
  • Do take steps to assist someone with language difficulties, especially if you are dealing with disciplinary or grievance situations.
  • Don’t assume that someone can’t do the job because they can’t speak the same language as you – offer help and support where you can and try to think of practical ways around the situation.

We are here to help

If you require any further support with your business including your HR, Payroll or Health and Safety, please contact us and speak to a member of the team.




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