Managers of international companies are often confronted with the problem of having to communicate with their employees and the works council in a foreign language that they do not fully master. This can easily lead to conflicts. In a recent decision in June, the Nuremberg Regional Labor Court (ref. 1 TaBV 33/19) has now clarified the scope.

The works council of a German branch of a Spanish clothing company demanded that communication with the branch manager, who at the beginning hardly spoke any German, be conducted exclusively in German during meetings or negotiations. Appraisal interviews and staff meetings had been conducted in English. Matters at staff meetings had not been translated if the translation appeared too difficult for the branch manager. In the opinion of the employees’ representatives, this violated their statutory rights of co-determination, as the issues involved were “the order of the business and the conduct of the employees”. The employer argued against this, pointing out that consequently only German-speaking employees could be appointed as managers. This was an unwarranted encroachment on entrepreneurial freedom and discriminated against the branch manager because of her origin.

The Court rejected the request of the works council. The Court held that if there were no employer’s specifications regarding the use of a language, the obligation to use a certain language was not a general rule of order in the company. A claim to communicate in German language, which is aimed at the possibility of safeguarding the rights of the works council and its members, could at best arise from sec. 78 German Works Constitution Act – BetrVG (obstruction of the works council’s work) or from the principle of trustful cooperation pursuant to sec. 2 (1) BetrVG (enabling and facilitating communication).

Following the case – at least after the first reprimand by the works council – a translator was present in case the branch manager could not express herself adequately in German language or she could not properly understand statements made by members of the works council. A reasonable and sufficient level of comprehension was thus ensured. This would not significantly impede the work of the works council or restrict the works council’s scope for development, as it was possible for all statements made by the branch manager to be made to the works council members in an understandable form and similarly for statements made to the branch management to be received and understood. This means in particular that statements in written or text form must be made in German at least if the works council members do not have a sufficient command of the foreign language. It is irrelevant whether the employer, the representatives appointed by the employer or the branch management personally write texts in German. This also applies in the same way to oral statements by the parties involved. In the opinion of the Nuremberg Regional Labor Court, it is therefore decisive that the works council receives the texts in German. In addition, steps should be taken to ensure that communications are mutually understood.