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Can employers make decisions based on an applicant’s accent?

| Jul 16, 2021 | Employment Law, Workplace Discrimination |

A person’s national origin can show itself in a variety of ways, from their name to their style of dress. National origin can even be audible in a person’s speech through their accent, and accents can have a marked impact on the way that people interact with others in the workplace. Can employers factor an employee or applicant’s accent into hiring or promotion decisions?

What is language discrimination?

It is illegal under United States law as well as Wisconsin law to make employment decisions that discriminate against a person due to their race, gender, religion or national origin, among other traits. While a person’s accent is not explicitly listed among these protected classes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that accents are “intertwined” with national origin or the first language they learned to speak.

As a result, it is not generally legal to make hiring decisions based on an employee’s accent or even the precision with which they speak English.

What accent-based decisions might not be considered discrimination?

Refusal to hire or promote an employee based on their accent is generally discrimination. However, if an applicant’s accent impacts their ability to perform their work, issues of discrimination may be less clear.

For positions that rely on the ability to communicate clearly where an accent might interfere with the applicant’s on-the-job duties, the court may not consider hiring decisions based on accents to be discriminatory. This may include, for example, customer service positions where clear communication with customers is an essential aspect of the work an employee would perform.

What can employees do if they experience discrimination because of their accent?

While language discrimination can be a disheartening experience, you can take action to report discrimination to employers and to explore additional legal options. Taking action can protect your career and prevent others from experiencing the same challenges.