Discrimination in the workplace, also known as employment discrimination, can occur when an employer either treats and/or acts in a way that implies that they treat an employee unfavorably due to their personal characteristics.
For example, if an employer terminates a worker based solely on the reason that they associate with a specific religious organization, then the worker will most likely have a claim for employment discrimination.
The main body of law that governs workplace discrimination is a federal law entitled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). According to Title VII, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against employees on the basis of color, religion, sex, and several other important identifying traits.
Additionally, these prohibitions are meant to protect employees during the employment process. In other words, employers cannot discriminate in making decisions regarding an employee or job candidate’s employment situation, such as when hiring, firing, paying, or demoting them.
If they do behave in a discriminatory manner, then the employer’s actions will be considered a violation of Title VII and they could face an employment discrimination lawsuit.
What is Accent Discrimination in the Workplace?
The leading government agency that is responsible for enforcing the provisions of Title VII is called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC also helps to protect employees from being discriminated against by employers. They may handle claims involving race, disability, gender, pregnancy, sex, and national origin discrimination in the workplace.
As an extension of these principles, some courts have found that anti-discrimination laws (e.g., Title VII) may apply to employees who have been discriminated against because of their birthplace, culture, and lineage. Thus, since a person’s accent is typically associated with their national origin, an employee who experiences accent discrimination in the workplace can bring a claim based on national origin.
An employee or job candidate may also have a discrimination claim if an employer has workplace policies that require fluency in English or post job listings that say, “English speakers only.”
It is important to note, however, that federal employment law does not contain explicit language regarding accent discrimination. Therefore, there are some situations where an employer may be allowed to impose an “English speakers only” or no accent requirement.
Can Employers Ever Have English-Fluency Requirements?
As discussed above, there may be certain scenarios where an employer might have a legitimate reason for requiring their employees to be fluent in English or to not have an accent in the workplace.
In such instances, the general rule of thumb is that this type of requirement will only be legal when English fluency is necessary in order for the employee to effectively perform their job tasks.
For example, it is not considered discrimination if a school district requests that an English teacher be fluent in English.
On the other hand, if a worker can get by in a position where only a minimum amount of fluency is necessary, such as understanding enough to follow instructions or being able to relay information about the work, then a claim may be brought against an employer who has an English-fluency policy.
Can Employers Ever Dismiss an Employee Based on Their Accent?
There are some cases where an employer can legally dismiss an employee based on their foreign accent. As previously mentioned, the EEOC and Title VII forbid discrimination in the workplace. However, an employer can require their employees to speak fluent English if it is a skill that is necessary to do the job effectively.
As such, an employer can dismiss an employee for having an accent if English is required for adequate job performance and their accent interferes with the work. For instance, if an employee’s accent makes it difficult for a supervisor or customer to communicate with them, or if they cannot understand their work assignments or follow basic job instructions.
The most common example of when an employer may be legally entitled to terminate an employee because of their accent is in work environments where it is very important that customers be able to understand what the employee is saying, such as in customer service or telemarketing positions.
What Should an Employee Do If They Believe They Have an Accent Discrimination Claim?
There are several factors that a court will consider when determining whether accent discrimination has occurred, which may include:
- The level of communication that is required for the job;
- Whether a neutral listener would be able to understand the employee; and/or
- Whether an employer could reasonably accommodate the employee’s accent (e.g., by switching their job tasks).
Again, it is important to keep in mind that accent discrimination will be addressed as national origin discrimination. Thus, an employer will not be required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to help an employee perform their job. The reason for this is because having an accent is not considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
However, an employer can strengthen their defense against an unlawful discrimination claim if they can prove that they provided reasonable accommodations to the employee, despite it not being a legal requirement for employees with accents.
Do I Need to Consult an Attorney for Help with My Accent Discrimination Claim?
If you believe that you have experienced accent discrimination at work, then you should consider contacting a local discrimination attorney. An attorney who specializes in anti-discrimination matters will be able to determine whether you have a valid claim and what your chances are of receiving a successful outcome.
Your lawyer can also help you gather relevant evidence to support your claim and can appear in court on your behalf if necessary.