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EEOC: Workplace Discrimination Claims Over Foreign Accents on the Rise


images (1)The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently released figures on what kinds of employment discrimination cases are being brought to the agency and how often. It’s probably not surprising that complaints of discrimination based on national origin, including those involving perceived problems with language ability or accent, are sharply on the rise.

According to the new numbers, more than 11800 complaints of employment discrimination based on national origin were filed with the EEOC in 2011 — up 77 percent from 1997. The EEOC has suggested that it might be the increasing diversity of the American workforce, but civil rights advocates think it’s more likely due to a climate of fear, particularly in states that have been enacting laws hostile to immigrants, both legal and undocumented.

One of the problems has been the introduction of English-only policies by employers. Such policies are only allowed when speaking fluent English is crucial to the job responsibilities, and even then the employer’s rights are strictly limited. The EEOC issued guidelines for employers back in 2002, but apparently that hasn’t solved the problem.

Take the case of an Iraqi hotel worker in Phoenix. He filed a complaint with the EEOC because his co-workers at the Four Points by Sheraton continuously mocked his accent and called him by derogatory nicknames. Managers refused to take his complaints seriously, even though a hostile work environment had developed. Ultimately, he won a $50,000 settlement.

Or take a similar case from California, in which Filipino hospital workers were harassed because they spoke with accents and even reprimanded by management when they spoke to each other in their native language.

Consider the FedEx contract driver from Utah who was fired because of his Russian accent. Although one of the requirements for having a commercial driver’s license, which he had, was the ability to communicate in English, a weigh station worker in Iowa gave his company an official warning, claiming he was unable to understand the driver.

Unless English fluency is part of the specific job responsibilities, people with limited English have the right to right to work. Policies that prohibit the speaking of any language but English in the workplace only serve to stigmatize employees who speak more than one language, and they are difficult to justify based on work requirements.

Worst of all, far too often, someone’s “inability” to understand people who speak with accents is based on their own frustration and malice. This is the insidious nature of national origin discrimination. It can be a front for claims that someone’s work isn’t up to snuff, when it’s actually bias against immigrants. It needs to be fought.

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