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Beware national-origin bias charges following criticism of accent

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

Do you have employees who were born and raised in other countries and who therefore speak English with heavy, foreign-sounding accents? If so, be careful how you approach any discussion about their speech. If supervisors or managers criticize workers’ accents, a national-origin discrimination lawsuit may be in your company’s future.

Simply put, firing (or refusing to hire) someone because of her accent may be national-origin discrimination.

It won’t help much to excuse the discharge or hiring rejection by painting the real reason as lack of communication, either. If the individual speaks English, her accent is irrelevant.

Recent case: Adesuwa was born and raised in Nigeria, but is a U.S. citizen. She speaks with a heavy accent. Adesuwa worked for Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse first as a store manager and then as a regional loss-prevention manager. Her job was to investigate thefts and audit stores for “shrinkage” caused by misplaced or stolen goods.

After her promotion, a co-worker, Todd, congratulated her and added, “I bet this is a great achievement considering your nationality. As an African, you must be the first to achieve this much success in your family, given your accent.”

Shortly after, Todd was also promoted and became Adesuwa’s supervisor. Todd continued to harp on her “thick African accent” and frequently mentioned her ethnicity and ancestry. He also criticized her for being aggressive.

Later, Adesuwa was called into a meeting with Todd, an HR generalist and another regional manager. According to Adesuwa, Todd fired her and ordered her to turn over her cell phone and laptop.

Then the HR generalist told her she was being let go because she was “not cut for the job.” When Adesuwa asked why, she was allegedly informed it was because of her “thick African accent” that people didn’t understand, and that she really should “speak more like an American.”

Adesuwa sued, alleging national-origin discrimination.

Under oath, Todd and the ­others testified that they hadn’t told her she was being terminated because of her accent. Instead, they cited work problems and general communications skills, including what some of Adesuwa’s subordinates described as a lack of courtesy.

The trial court dismissed Adesuwa’s lawsuit, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it and ordered a jury trial. The appeals court concluded that Adesuwa had enough evidence from which a jury might conclude that the real reason she was fired was her national origins rather than poor communications skills. (Albert-Aluya v. Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse, No. 11-14761, 11th Cir., 2012)

Final note: Don’t let stereotypes about race, national origin or other protected classifications sneak into the workplace. Characterizing someone from Africa as aggressive plays into just such stereotypes. So does focusing on something like an “African” accent.

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