Employee bears language risk by signing employment contract

Germany: No duty for employers to translate contract into employee’s native language even if employee not proficient in contract language.

An employee who signs a contract written in German must accept adverse contract clauses even if he is not proficient in German and therefore cannot comprehend all the details in the contract.

In the opinion of the German Federal Labour Court (BAG) this will apply even if contract negotiations are conducted in a foreign language before the contract is signed. These negotiations do not justify the employer’s general obligation to translate the employment agreement into the employee’s native language without being asked.

The court explained its reasoning by stating that where an employee lacks language skills in the contract language this cannot be an obstacle to the validity of signing the contract. Unconditional acceptance of an employment agreement can be seen from the employer’s standpoint only in the sense that the employee accepts the contract as a whole. Lack of language skills on the part of the employee cannot be held to the responsibility of the employer. In such a situation the employee has the opportunity to ask for time to consider, for a translation, or can arrange a translation on his own. As such opportunities are available to the employee, the risk is his if he fails to ask for help and signs the contract unaware of its content.

In these circumstances an employee has to accept being treated like a person who signs a contract without having read it beforehand.

Practical tip: while employers will welcome this decision from their own point of view, they should not use it to exploit an employee’s lack of language skills. Violation of moral principles and fraud would invalidate the contract independently from lack of language skills.

Source: Federal Labour Court; Reference number: AZR 252/12 (B) 

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