Discrimination in the workplace is defined as treating or proposing to treat someone unfavorably due to a person’s personal characteristics. Pursuant to the Equal Opportunity Act of 2010, there are 18 personal characteristics that make employment discrimination illegal in all fifty states. Moreover, employees are protected in all stages of employment, from preliminary interviews/recruitment, to being unlawfully fired or demoted.

What is Accent Discrimination?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits discrimination based on one’s race, children, religion, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, and national origin. In that regard, employees cannot be discriminated against based on their ancestry, birthplace, and culture.

A person’s accent is typically associated with their national origin, and for this reason, treating someone unfavorably because of their foreign accent is against federal law. English-only, “Standard English, and policies which require fluency in English may also be considered discriminatory.

Can Employers Ever Have English-Fluency Requirements?

Yes, there can be legitimate reasons for employers to have English-fluency requirements in the workplace. The general rule is that a job requirement making an employee fluent in English is legal so long as English fluency is required to effectively perform the position for which an employee is hired. For instance, it is not discriminatory for a school district to require that an English teacher be fluent in English.

But if the position only requires enough understanding to follow instructions or relay information about work, then English-fluency is typically not required.

Can Employers Ever Dismiss an Employee Based on Her Accent?

There are circumstances in which an employer can legally dismiss an employee based on her foreign accent. As discussed above, the EEOC forbids employment discrimination, but an employer can require its employees to speak fluent English if it is a necessary aspect of performing the job effectively.

In that regard, an employer can dismiss an employee for her accent if fluent English is required to perform the job effectively, and the employee’s accent is an issue and the worker is not understood within the context of the work environment and work assignments. The most common example of an employer legally being able to fire an employee based on an accent is in customer service or telemarketing, where it is very important that consumers understand the employee.

What Should an Employee Consider if She Believes She Has an Accent Discrimination Case?

There are several factors that a court analyzes in order to determine whether accent discrimination has occurred, including:

  • Level of communication required for the job;
  • Whether an unbiased listener could understand the employee; and/or
  • Whether accommodations could reasonably be given to the employee.

It’s important to note that accent discrimination is a subcategory of national origin discrimination, which does not require that an employer provide a “reasonable accommodation” to the employee to perform her job. The reason is that having an accent is not considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, an employer can strengthen her defense against unlawful discrimination if she can prove she provided a reasonable accommodation to the employee despite not requiring it.

Should I Consult an Attorney?

If you believe you have been improperly discriminated against because of your accent (i.e. national origin discrimination), contact an discrimination attorney. A skilled attorney can help you evaluate whether you have a valid case and your chances of prevailing. A lawyer can also help you gather relevant evidence to support your claim and make court appearances on your behalf.