Could Your Accent Get You Fired?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15% of the American workforce is foreign born, meaning that 23.9 million individuals legally employed in the U.S. may speak English with what is considered as a “foreign accent” by native American-English speakers.

Employees Face Workplace Discipline for Speaking English with a “Foreign Accent”

American workers whose first language is one other than English face many challenges in addition to learning a new language including facing disciplinary situations in the workplace. For example:

  • A FedEx driver was terminated in 2012 because an Iowa weigh station worker complained about the FedEx driver’s Russian accent, which the weigh station worker deemed too difficult to understand.
  • One Arizona teacher, born in Mexico, claims she was told by school district officials that state policy prohibited her from teaching English to her students because of her accent. She has filed a complaint of workplace discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Is a Foreign Accent Grounds for Termination?

It depends.

The EEOC includes “accent” as a protected class in its National Origin Discrimination guidance, which states:

National origin discrimination involves treating people (applicants or employees) unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not).

The EEOC forbids discrimination in all aspects of employment, including hiring and firing; however, (and this is a big “however”) an employer can require an employee to speak fluent English if fluency in English is necessary to perform the job effectively according to the EEOC.

Any claim of discrimination based on accent would have to prove:

  • The position does not require fluent English to be performed effectively; and/or
  • The employee’s accent is not an issue and the worker is generally understood within the context of the work environment and work assignments.

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