Is it Illegal to Discriminate Against Me on the Job Because of My Accent?

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Contrary to popular opinion, many immigrants work in professional and white-collar jobs. The explosive growth of immigration to the United States means that more immigrants will work in white-collar jobs in the United States. Since white collar jobs often require verbal communication, immigrants employed in white-collar professions and their employers will increasingly face the question of whether it is legal to discriminate on the basis of accent. 

Most federal and state courts that have addressed the issue believe that it is illegal for employees to discriminate based on accent if that discrimination is tied to nationality. Courts have even gone so far as to state that nationality and accent are intertwined, which means that they take such discrimination seriously. However, courts understand that employers have an interest in clear verbal communication. So what steps should you take if you think you are being discriminated against because of your accent? 

  1. Apply for a promotion for which you are qualified: Discrimination is only actionable if the company takes some action against you. One so-called adverse action is a failure to promote. If you are a trusted and valued employee, a company will often give you a reason why you were not promoted. If this reason is related to your accent, you can often get a decision maker to say as much. Legally, this is considered direct evidence of discrimination.
  2. If possible, reach out to other foreign-born employees in your workplace: If other foreign-born employees are being discriminated against for the same or similar reasons, it makes sense to work with them, as it can show a pattern by the employer. Also, when employees work together to fight discrimination, they are not just protected by civil rights laws, but they are also protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
  3. If possible, contact an employment attorney in your area before you decide to take action:  Every situation is different, and laws vary from state to state. A lawyer can give you tips about how to potentially build a case, can give you advice about actions and tactics to avoid, and can advise you about any legal deadlines that might apply to your potential case.