• International Workplace
  • 29 August 2017

Sports Direct’s policy for staff to speak English only faces investigation

Sports Direct may face a raft of Employment Tribunal claims after it issued instructions to staff across its UK stores to speak in English only at all times while at work, even during private conversations.

“We would like to remind all staff that English is the official language of the company,” the statement said. “It has come to our attention that some members of staff are speaking to each other in languages other than English whilst carrying out their duties.”

The company cites health and safety as one of the key reasons for its enforcement of this policy, stating that staff speaking in languages other than English could pose a variety of risks to the company. It claims:

“It is in the interests of all staff that they are able to understand and be understood by their colleagues at all times” 

Sports Direct recognises that conversations outside of work, for example during rest breaks or after a shift, “may be in a language of your choosing.” However, staff are warned that those who fail to adhere to this company policy may be subject to disciplinary process.

The statement originally appeared in Sports Direct’s Bangor store, where Welsh employees felt they were being banned from speaking their own language in their home country. Since then it has been distributed to all UK stores and employment law experts have suggested the company may be facing claims of indirect discrimination.

Indirect discrimination occurs where a practice that appears to treat people equally nevertheless adversely affects some groups more than others. For example, where an employer insists on a wide mobility clause in its contract of employment, this could be interpreted as discriminating against women, as they are more likely to be the ‘second earner’ and therefore less able to relocate.

The case follows an investigation by the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee into employment practices at Sports Direct, which found ‘appalling working conditions and practices’ at the retailer’s shops and at the Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire.

The Committee also heard a series of accounts of worker mistreatment, including staff being penalised for matters such as taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill – the ‘six strikes and you’re out’ policy. Allegations also surfaced of some workers being promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours, while other evidence pointed to serious health and safety breaches, with repeated ambulance calls to the Shirebrook warehouse.