Is it Okay to be Treated Unfairly at Work Because English Isn’t my First Language?

Deana Bates
Employment Law Solicitor

Put simply, it is not okay; this treatment could amount to race discrimination. Race discrimination covers situations where you are treated less favourably because of your nationality, native, or ethnic origin.

Discrimination in all forms is unacceptable and should never be tolerated by anyone. The Equality Act 2010 is the law which sets out that discrimination is unlawful. Equality law is in place to ensure that all people are treated equally in the workplace.

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Protected Characteristics

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of one of the following characteristics, known as Protected Characteristics:

Where Does Language Come Into it?

Speaking English as a second language is not a protected characteristic directly. However, if you were treated differently at work because English isn’t your first language, such treatment would fall under the category of Race for the purpose of protection from discrimination.

Race discrimination includes those who are discriminated against on the grounds of their nationality, native or ethnic origin. Your primary language is generally linked to your nationality or native or ethnic origin. Therefore, to treat you less favourably on those grounds would be unlawful.

Examples which could amount to race discrimination where English is not your primary language could be:

  1. Being told you are not suitable for a role because English is not your first language.

  2. Being told you are not suitable for a role because of your accent.

  3. Being told directly that you must only speak English in your workplace, or being told not to speak your native language.

  4. A blanket rule applies in your workplace stating that all employees must speak English only in the workplace.

In some instances, employers can ask that all employees speak English, where the reason for that request is from a health and safety perspective. For example, to ensure that health and safety risks can be explained and communicated clearly.

This type of policy decision may be justified in some workplaces but not necessarily in all. Therefore, if you are not sure whether your employer is discriminating against you, you should speak with a specialist Employment Solicitor for advice.

I Think I Have Been Discriminated Against for my Language – What do I do next?


The first step would be to raise the issue with your employer to express your concerns, by following the internal grievance and or equal opportunities policy. If your employer does not have any HR policies, you could write to your manager or HR and set out your concerns.

If you have tried to resolve the matter directly with your employer, or do not feel you are able to do this, you may wish to bring a claim to an employment tribunal. You must do this within a specific timeframe and must contact ACAS before doing so.

You must contact ACAS to complete their Early Conciliation process before submitting a claim to an employment tribunal. This is a straightforward process and isn’t something to worry about.

If you are going to submit a claim for discrimination to an employment tribunal, you have 3 months (less one day) from the act of discrimination, or the most recent act, where there has been more than one act to submit your claim.

To prepare for bringing a race discrimination claim, it would be helpful if you made notes on the following:

  • The date and time that the discrimination took place, including all relevant dates if it has been more than one act;
  • The names of those involved;
  • Details of exactly what was said or how you have been discriminated against;
  • Whether there were any witnesses;
  • What action you have taken (if any) to raise concerns with your employer and any response;
  • How you have been affected by what has happened. This could be emotionally, or perhaps if you have missed out on a promotion.

If you are concerned about the lack of evidence you are able to gather, do not panic; discrimination often occurs verbally, in which case making a note of what was said by who and on what date may be sufficient evidence.

Call our Employment Law Solicitors today to discuss your options. We can advise and assist you throughout the process to ensure that your discrimination claim is dealt with efficiently.

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