English only in the workplace

Can my employer say that only English is allowed to be spoken in our workplace?

The right to use one’s own language is an internationally recognised human right, which is mentioned in a range of human rights treaties and declarations.

Under the Human Rights Act, it is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably because of their ethnicity or national origin. Someone’s first language is usually related to their ethnicity so if an employer tries to stop someone from using their first language, that may be discrimination.

However, English is the most widely used language in New Zealand and people have very different responses to the use of languages other than English in the workplace. It would be hard for an employer to justify a total “English only” policy when the reason for that was to create “workplace harmony” or because it was part of  “company culture”. But the policy could be appropriate if an employer has a valid reason for it – health and safety reasons would be the most likely. However, employees should have the freedom to speak other languages during breaks, or before or after work.

The Commission has published an information sheet on this issue called ‘English language only’ policies in the workplace'.

Other organisations that might be able to provide further information are:

View this section to contact the Commission for help.