According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the number of discrimination complaints based on national origin has risen by 76 percent in just the past 15 years. In 2011, more than 11,800 complaints were filed alleging workplace discrimination based on English-speaking ability or having an accent.
For example, a contract driver for FedEx in Utah, says he was fired because a single person at a weigh station concluded that he did not speak English. The Iowa weigh station issued a warning, which is less than a citation against his employer. When FedEx found out, they ordered his company to fire him.
A number of those cases have resulted in large settlements for the employees. In Phoenix, a hotel worker of Iraqi origin received a $500,000 settlement after putting up with co-workers mocking his accent and calling him names. Management took no action when he complained about the hostile work environment.
In California, a group of Filipino hospital workers received a $1 million settlement after they were harassed and even reprimanded for having accents or for speaking in their native language. The Delano Regional Medical Center nevertheless defends its English-only policy as a patient-care measure, although the Filipinos pointed out it was never enforced evenly.
English-only policies are often too restrictive for what they intend to achieve, as the director of the Utah Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division, the state agency that handles workplace discrimination in that state, points out:
“We recently had a couple of cases where the use of a native language was prohibited even in the break room or when they’re outside and off-duty – the managers just didn’t want to hear it.”
The EEOC recognizes that there are situations in which fluent English is a job requirement, and that can include having an accident that interferes with important communication. However, not all jobs require unaccented English, and policies need to be specific about what is needed.
A Phoenix car salesman of Nigerian origin who speaks perfect English recently settled a lawsuit for $99,000 after he was denied a promotion because of his accent. According to the EEOC, when his promotion was turned down he was told he should “talk more like and American.”
National origin discrimination is related to race discrimination, but it’s not the same. Citizens and non-citizens alike can be victimized. People visually indistinguishable from other Americans can suffer. It’s insidious, it’s illegal, and it appears to be on the rise.
Source: Insurance Journal, “More Workers Claiming Job Discrimination Over Language, Accents,” Paul Foy, Dec. 4, 2012.