English is my first spoken language but I have an understanding of a couple of others, as well as a good knowledge of sign language (though the chances to put this to use have been rare). It came up in my interview, it's on my CV and I assumed that HR might note this somewhere. We had a visitor to the office recently - let's call him 'Ryan' - who communicated using sign language exclusively. He also came along with an interpreter provided by our company. I was not directly involved in anything Ryan and the managers did before lunch. We were only given a brief introduction.

At our lunch break, Ryan and the interpreter sat with me and we were having a casual conversation. Ryan asked me something through the interpreter and I responded with sign language before the interpreter relayed it. Ryan was at first surprised but politely responded afterwards and seemed happy to continue in such a way afterwards. We both understood each other and I'm confident I said what I intended to say (which was all positive!). Ryan did mention that nobody told him there was someone in the company who could use sign language. At first it was just the interpreter, Ryan and myself. When others joined us, I spoke as well as signed; something often do anyway as sign-users I've met before could lip-read well and if I'm not sure of the sign for something. Later in the day, a manager brought me aside and insisted that if there is an interpreter provided for visitors, we do all our communications through them. From my discussion with the manager, I know for certain that Ryan was not discomforted by the experience, I said nothing inappropriate or incomprehensible, the through-interpreter-only rule is not an official company rule or policy, and despite having to communicate with clients across the globe, HR keeps no record of what languages etc. we each know.

I can appreciate that if this were a formal meeting, I would defer to the interpreter's greater skill to reduce the risk of something being conveyed incorrectly, but this was a casual conversation that had very little to do with our work. I wasn't disciplined as such, but this is the first time I've had to be so sternly warned by a manager not to do something. It caught me quite off-guard.

My question is; in a UK-based workplace, if an interpreter is provided for a visitor, colleague, client etc., is it considered unprofessional to communicate directly to the person(s) that need the interpreter?

  • Were there other people present at the time, or was it just you, Ryan and the interpreter?
    – rath
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 10:34
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    How did the interpreter react to suddenly not having anything to do? Did you cut them out of the conversation, or did they also engage with the both of you?
    – Erik
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 11:00
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    I'm no expert on this, mind you, but it's my understanding that when a handicapped person requires an assistant for day-to-day tasks like this, that it's considered impolite to address the assistant. Meaning you should address Ryan directly whether you're signing or speaking and let the interpreter do his job as needed. In this case, the interpreter may have been surprised that you understood the sign language, but if he's being professional then he should also realize that you two signing directly is a better experience for Ryan, and not take offense. TLDR: You did good.
    – Steve-O
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 13:36
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    -"Your boos is too kind but I'm uncertain if this is his common behaviour" -"The guy is a fraud, I cannot buy a used car form him, you must see how that prick acts when there's not guests around". Boss doing tiny eye while observes the silent conversation. While this was not what happened your boss maybe guess it is
    – jean
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 12:10
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    boss got jealous of your skills
    – atxgis
    Commented Apr 20, 2018 at 17:53

5 Answers 5


Well, this is quite an unusual state of affairs, I must say. From my experience interpreters for spoken languages are generally relieved when they don't have to do much, as well they're still on the clock.

I would say it's likely that the manager has a vested interest in Ryan, and he perceived you taking control of the situation as an unforeseen risk that the otherwise trusted resource (the interpreter) would have handled.

  • 3
    Another manager told me that due to the vested interest in Ryan as a client, the first manager's reaction was 'out of being surprised' more than anything else. We think he assumed Ryan's chances to converse with others would be more limited (perhaps sensitive topics were brought up). He must have just thought it an unforeseen risk.
    – user34587
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 12:43

Typically it goes against company policy to work around interpreters where business is involved. To put it bluntly, being fluent in a language, even if it's your native tongue, does not certify you to interpret within your company on company business. Many companies will note your languages, test you for proficiency and then assign you trainings and credentials for interpretation.

I will give you a simple example: you work at a hospital as a patient care tech or something similar. Your patient is a non-English-speaking hispanic and your primary languages are English and Spanish/Portugese. The doctor intends to diagnose this person with cancer.

You, as a native speaker and a human being, may attempt to soften the blow by using hedge phrases, or softer/humanized language. You may give the patient an altered understanding of the situation.

The interpreter, as a certified agent of the hospital and privy to the way the hospital expects patients to receive information, conveys the diagnosis as the doctor intended the patient to receive. Doctors, as professionals, are trained to communicate differently with patients than the average person does. The interpreter knows this, but you may not.

You present a liability, as patients have rights to receive their healthcare information a certain way. Does that make sense?

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    This. There is a reason that interpreters are often certified in specific fields or for example for legal/medical topics. There is a (potentially) legal liability in what is said in a business context. If all people speak the same language in a reasonable language it is less of a problem, as there are less potential misunderstandings and witnesses for it. The certificate also is a "witness" for the trustworthiness of the abilities of an interpreter and they have a contract that makes them liable, so they take care to translate as correctly as possible. OP probably has neither.
    – skymningen
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 14:17
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    Yes, but OP stated it was a casual conversation and not something business related.
    – Pudora
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 14:19
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    @Pudora I'm not OP's company, but if he got heat for subverting the interpreter who's, in fact, there on company dime and not for his own pleasure, then my only assumption is that the entirety of the visitor's stay can be construed as business-related.
    – CKM
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 17:13
  • +1 for mentioning "liability". The boss was probably thinking that the company needs to be able to answer the question "Who told Ryan that?" Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 16:31
  • Note the example is not completely accurate. In this case OP is not acting as the interpreter for someone else. It is very doubtful ANYONE can “interpret” what he wants to say better than himself. And less so in the context of an informal conversation. Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 15:16

The literal answer to your question is "yes" because it's unprofessional to do anything your employers don't accept. They get to decide what's "professional" under their roof, and professionals abide by the rules.

That said, in the uncritical context described, I think they are full of it. In casual conversation I find it awkward (if not rude) to force a less familiar language on someone. I think you were pragmatic, polite, and welcoming, but it's my luxury of detachment that permits my view; as an employee, you don't get that luxury.

  • That's a bit extreme. An employer can have a whim that's completely unreasonable, and it's not unprofessional to do it / not do it anyway. I work about 35 miles from where I live, and public transportation is not an option. If my employer insisted I take public transportation to work, it's not unprofessional to say "nope". Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 20:31
  • @J.D.Walker: That's a false predicate because getting to work has nothing to do with doing your work or how you represent the company. If your company has a security or name badge, they could consider it unprofessional to wear that badge in a public setting because it represents the company. It's certainly dangerous ground when it comes to things like spoken language. It still is behavior that can represent the company and can fall under the definition of what the company considers professional. Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 16:51
  • I disagree - professional standards are defined by a community of professionals and society at large. A client or customer could complain "that's not professional" and be right even if the employee's behaviour is in line with company policy.
    – Tom
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 23:30
  • @JoelEtherton Okay, looking at the OP's specific situation, it was a casual conversation, not work-related at all. That manager was way out of line, and the OP was being hospitable to the visitor. Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 19:37
  • @J.D.Walker It was on company time and property. It's subject to company policy (and even "whim") if it comes down to it. While on company property, the company does retain the right to "police" conversations (even casual ones) as relevant to company business and/or brand. Getting to work is not on company time or property. Hence the comment of "false predicate". Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 17:30

One concern the company could have had, is that you were keeping others at the table out of the conversation. It was no different than if you had decided to have the conversation in a language that only you and Ryan knew.

The purpose of the company providing the interpreter was to facilitate the conversations, and the make the experience inclusive. Going around the interpreter for a short phrase, such as a greeting, would have been fine; but an extended side-conversation wasn't. It was impolite.

As to company policy. Unless they are in the regular habit of providing interpreters it is unlikely that there is a policy that tells you how to use them. I think it falls under the guidance of being polite to the others in the conversation.

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    OP did not keep others out of the conversation. The question says: "When others joined us, I spoke as well as signed".
    – sleske
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 10:10
  • It doesn't change the managers concern. Having a conversation in that manner could make others feel left out. Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 10:15
  • @mhoran_psprep - If they're worried about others' "Feelings" then theyhave failed as a manager. Anyone who lauds inclusivity but smacks it down when it arrives is a fraud and is never going to be taken seriously as a leader. Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 17:38

I can imagine that it's not necessarily unprofessional. It's just that the managers don't know what you're talking about with Ryan. Since the interpreter is not a part of your company, he or she doesn't know what you should or shouldn't be talking about. I'm unsure what the occasion of Ryan's visit was, whether he was a potential client, a potential employee or a regular visitor.

For all the managers know, you might be telling Ryan the funniest thing that happened to you last weekend, or you are relaying company/client sensitive information (unintentionally). But there is no way for them to know, since nobody can understand what you're talking about.

  • I'm not sure this is exactly it. The problem OP is facing is they didn't use the interpreter when they should've. The scenario you describe (unintentionally divulging confidential info) does not require the use of sign language or the side-stepping of the interpreter. If there were more people present, it might be that the OP unintentionally excluded them from the conversation, much like you do if speaking a foreign language among those who do not understand it.
    – rath
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 10:31
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    the OP said "When others joined us, I spoke as well as signed", so nobody was excluded. But when It was just the 2 of them, eavesdroppers were excluded, which is I suspect why people were upset
    – WendyG
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 11:50
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    For all the manager knows, he could be saying one thing and signing another. So I can see the concern.
    – pboss3010
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 15:02

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