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Is Accent Discrimination Illegal?

In Great Britain, the issue of regional accents is a hot topic. In a country were a “posh” London proper accent is seen as more educated and sophisticated, employees in the United Kingdom attempt to change their thicker region accents to resemble those heard in the capital. When one reflects that same rhetoric in the United States, we might laugh. We would never discriminate against regional or foreign accents. Or do we?

In a study and article written in 2002 and 2007 respectively, academics suggest that accents “lead to judgments about ethnicity and socioeconomic status” as well as affect the perception of that person's “intelligence, physical attractiveness, and trustworthiness.” In the realm of employment law, these inherent perceptions lead to various accent rules that may actually be in violation of the Labor Code.

We recently blogged about English only policies in the workplace and when it can be deemed discriminatory. For accents, the same rules more or less apply. Since accents are very closely associated with ethnicity and national origin, accent discrimination is a hot topic in courts.

The law summarizes that fluency and accent rules may be legal if clear oral communication is essential or vital to the position. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides the example of an individual with a foreign accent working at a restaurant. While the person's English language proficiency qualifies for a cashier position, his or her written skills may not be developed enough to perform managerial duties that include written documentation to government agencies or to perform written evaluations. In that case, the employer is not discriminating based on fluency and accent, but on the necessity of the job to have clear communication.

However, back in 2012, truck driver and Russian immigrant Ismail Aliyev was fired strictly for his accent, he alleges. Aliyev worked as a contract driver for FedEx and was written up on multiple occasions for his “inability to speak English.” These violations and write-ups could never be produced. Though he has a heavy Russian accent, Aliyev stated, “I think for a driver, my English is not too bad.”

If you believe your accent is being discriminated against for any reason, contact an Aegis attorney.

Source: Nolo, Insurance Journal, J.N. Fuertes, and Intuition 

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