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Q: We have a large ethnic group in our workforce, some members of which have poor English and as a result fail to comply with rules such as sickness absence notification. Are we obliged to translate our rulebook for them? How could we do that?
A: There is no statutory obligation upon you to translate your rules but there are two good reasons why you should. The first is that you cannot fairly discipline or dismiss someone for breaking a rule that they were not aware of and, in the employment arena, employees' ignorance is in fact a good defence. You already know the second reason – if they do not understand the rules they will throw your system into turmoil.
If there is anything that you want all employees to understand, the onus is upon you to ensure that they do so. You therefore should consider the needs of people with poor English which includes those whose domestic language is not English and people with learning or reading difficulties, and don’t forget employees such as sales staff and service engineers who work off-site and do not see notice boards.
First look down your list of employees to determine who might not be well served by a rulebook or displayed notice in clear English. Second give everyone an oral explanation of critical rules such as safety regulations and absence notification requirements and test their knowledge a few days later. Finally have your rules and regulations translated into languages your employees can understand. Someone from the ethnic group you mention may be able to do this or may know someone who can, but you must ensure that their skill in both English and the other language is high. If you have any doubt, contact a reputable language school. Do bear in mind, however, that not all English people can read English, and not all Portuguese can read Portuguese. Ideally, therefore, have a translator or helper present during induction training and follow up induction with tests of understanding for everyone.
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