Memo to Winnipeg hospital staff: Speak English only, please

But social banter amongst workers hard to regulate, says lawyer
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/23/2013

The Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg issued a memo in early March reminding staff members they should only be speaking English on the job — whether it be to each other or patients.

“We’ve had a number of complaints from workers but we’ve also had patient and family complaints,” said Karen Clearwater, senior legal counsel for human resources at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. “The posting was a reminder to use that common- sense approach.”

The English-only rule has been in place at the 6,500-employee centre for several years and partially stems from a need to ensure clear patient services are being provided, she said. It is important that staff are providing services to patients and their families in a common language.

“There were discussions occurring in front of patients and their families in languages other than English, and they were very concerned they were not understanding everything — or anything in some cases — and they wanted to make sure they were not missing anything,” said Clearwater.

Health and safety is a top priority at the hospital, and speaking a language everyone can understand is important in this regard, she said.

“It’s particularly important in the provision of health-care services when receiving instructions, when providing guidance to a patient, when being told how to prep this room for X function, it’s being done in a common language. For the safety of the workplace and ensuring everything is being understood and done, that’s important.”

The rule also stems from the government of Manitoba’s health and safety legislation which requires all employers to develop a respectful workplace policy outlining their commitment to providing a safe, equal and respectful work environment for all employees that is free of harassment and discrimination.

“When you’re engaged in a discussion during work hours, if another person is in the room — whether it’s a personal or work moment — and it’s in a language they don’t understand, they may feel that they are being excluded. And, in our case, it has manifested itself in respectful workplace complaints,” said Clearwater.

While an employer is entirely within its rights to regulate the language spoken to customers, clients and patients, it may have a harder time regulating the social banter that occurs at the workplace, said Alfred Kempf, a partner at law firm Pushor Mitchell in Kelowna, B.C.

“There is no predominant reason why English must be the language of the workplace for social banter,” he said. “I don’t think an employer really has the right to say for banter — other than business-type discussions — that it has to be one language or another.”

An employer has to have some pretty good reasons to interfere with people’s right to express themselves in the language they choose to use, said Kempf.

If there is bullying or ridicule happening in the other language, or there is something untoward about the banter, then the employer should further investigate and it may be justified in implementing an English-only rule, he said.

The English-only policy at the Health Sciences Centre applies only to employees while they are on duty, which does not include their time on breaks, in the lunchroom or before and after their shifts, said Clearwater.

This distinction is very important because an employer’s ability to regulate the lunchroom is far less than its power to regulate discussions on the work floor, said Kempf.

“I would say the lunchroom is dangerous territory for the employer to intrude upon.”

Employees at all federal institutions have the right to work in the official language (English or French) of their choice in the following regions: New Brunswick, the Greater Montreal region, parts of the Eastern Townships, Gaspé and western Quebec, the National Capital Region and parts of eastern and northern Ontario, according to the federal government’s Official Languages Act.

New Brunswick, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut also have provincial legislation citing English and French as official languages — as well as some Aboriginal and Inuit languages in N.W.T. and Nunavut — and their respective acts outline the language rights of employees. And Quebec has legislation promoting the use of French — the province’s only official language — in the workplace.

English is the only official language in all the other provinces.

Human rights concerns

Employees who are used to speaking another language at work may not take well to an English-only policy, said Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“People can see it as being broader than just about language — it’s about employees’ culture or ethnicity and that can be demoralizing but also disrespectful or demeaning,” she said.

Although most human rights codes across Canada generally do not explicitly identify language as a prohibited ground of discrimination — except the Yukon and Quebec — human rights tribunals may consider claims under a number of related grounds such as ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin and, in some circumstances, race, said Hall.

“Where the true intention of the employer is to discriminate on the basis of race, for example, by making it mandatory English be spoken, he sets himself up for a human rights complaint — and probably a successful one,” said Kempf.

If an English-only rule is in place, the employer must be able to “demonstrate that speaking English at all times at the workplace is a reasonable and bona fide requirement in the circumstances,” according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Benefits to multiple languages at workplace

Speaking various languages at work can be beneficial to a workplace, said Hall. This is especially true in a health-care environment where people are under stress or in some kind of crisis, and it can be comforting to have staff who speak their language, she said.

The Health Sciences Centre does provide interpretive services for patients who require assistance in a language other than English, said Clearwater. While an employee may provide the interpretation, the person is usually a professional interpreter to make sure all the medical terminology is properly translated.

“The key is that they interpret it for all in the room, so they are interpreting to the patient and also (interpreting what the patient says) into English for the other workers who are not fluent in that language, so it’s full interpretive services — for all of the health-care team and for the patient and their family,” said Clearwater.

English-only policies may affect the bottom line of a business and reduce any opportunities for it to be seen as an organization that can communicate with visitors from around the world or other members of the community who may not speak English fluently, said Hall.

“It could suggest to customers that they’re not welcome and it’s a legitimate concern for an employer to have a welcoming environment.”

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