Operating language German? About the employer’s obligation to speak German

English is often the language of choice in large companies with international connections. Even if the company has a branch in Germany, the HR department, superiors and employees are often not based in Germany and the customers are international. But what if the German works council insists that everyone communicates in German? Can they demand German as the operating language?

The Regional Labour Court of Nuremberg says: No!

The Regional Labour Court of Nuremberg has rejected the request of the works council in this matter. It decided that the works council cannot demand that the employer speaks German with them or the employees if translations are ensured. (Regional Labour Court of Nuremberg, decision of 18.06.2020 – 1 TaBV 33/19).

Spanish clothing company with international employees

The case in Nuremberg concerned a clothing company that belongs to a Spanish group and has about 80 stores in Germany. In one of the company's stores in Germany, the employer appointed a store manager who initially had little, but then later on better, knowledge of the German language. In addition, all staff members had different nationalities, and some of them didn’t speak German. The works council criticized that the branch manager used the English language in conversations with individual employees and at employee meetings, partly in the presence of the works council. He wanted to oblige the company to communicate with them and the employees exclusively in German and to hold works meetings in German language.

No obstruction of the works council

According to the Regional Labour Court of Nuremberg, communication within the firm is not subject to co-determination. A corresponding claim of the works council could at best result from the principle of trustful cooperation and the prohibition of obstruction of the works council. But, according to the Court, both principles are complied with if the communication is translated by other employees. It is therefore not necessary that the HR department or the branch manager are fluent in German or use the German language.

No obligation to communicate in German with employees

The Court also decided that the works council cannot require either of the employers to use only the German language at employee meetings. But if the employer wants to introduce general language related instructions for the employees, these are subject to the co-determination of the works council.
Following the Regional Labour Court of Nuremberg, there was neither a reason nor a need to oblige employers to communicate in German with employees who perhaps have a better knowledge of English than of German.

Free choice of language, but not before the labour courts

The decision of the Nuremberg Regional Labour Court is to be welcomed in the labour law practice. In times of advancing internationality, the language restriction seems retrograde.

If there are no language rules within the firm, the company is therefore free to choose. It only has to ensure that the communication is understood by the recipients, i.e. the works council or the employees. If the works council requires all information to be provided in German language, it is sufficient that an employee acts as an intermediary translator.

Nevertheless, it may be useful to establish a language regulation to avoid disputes. Such regulation will then be subject to the co-determination of the works council.

Before the labour court, however, German remains the only admissible language. Therefore, all communication with the works council or the employees, which could possibly end up before court, should be in German and in written form. This applies, for example, to warnings, notices of termination and hearings of the works council regarding dismissals or other personnel measures. If no German version of such a letter can be submitted to the court, the court can obtain an official translation. Any errors in this translation will be borne by the employer.

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