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National-origin discrimination: What you need to know

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in Centerpiece,Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The rapidly increasing diversity of the U.S. workforce requires all managers to be aware of their legal responsibilities when dealing with applicants and employees from different races, ethnic groups and religions.

Such people are protected in the workplace against various types of discrimination—including race, religion and national origin—by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

National-origin discrimination forbids job-related bias based on a person’s physical, linguistic or cultural traits associated with a national-origin group. Here’s some advice:

1. What is national-origin discrimination?

National-origin discrimination laws make it unlawful for employers to treat someone less favorably because he or she (or his or her ancestors) is from a certain place or belongs to a particular ethnic group. Beware job bias based on any of the following:

1. Ethnicity, whether for belonging to an ethnic group or for not belonging to a particular group.
2. Physical, linguistic, or cultural traits involving characteristics linked to a national-origin group (e.g., traditional African attire).
3. The perception that a person belongs to a particular ethnic group.

2. Are English-only rules discriminatory?

Establishing language restrictions in the workplace isn’t automatically illegal. However, depending on how restrictive the rule is and your reason for it, an English-only rule could be seen by a court as discriminatory.

Before requiring employees to speak only English, examine the reasons why. Does it solve a legitimate business need? Is it unduly restrictive? Could it cause more harm than good?

3. Under what circumstances are English-only rules justified?

Managers can enforce English-only rules when they are justified by “business necessity” if it is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently. For example:

  • For communications with customers, co-workers, or supervisors who speak only English
  • In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety
  • For cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency
  • To enable a supervisor who speaks only English to monitor performance.

Tip: Don’t play favorites. If English-only rules are in place, avoid allowing some, but not others, to speak in their native tongue.

4. Is it illegal to refuse to hire an applicant with a thick accent for a customer-oriented job?

In many situations, accent discrimination and national-origin lawsuits go hand in hand, especially when it comes to hiring practices. But when the two can be separated by bona fide occupational qualifications, you stand a strong chance of defending your actions.

The EEOC says hiring managers “may not base an employment decision on an employee’s foreign accent, unless the accent seriously interferes with the employee’s job performance.”

When interviewers have a tough time understanding an applicant’s speech, and public understanding of speech is a mandatory part of the job, courts will likely support you in a national-origin claim.

Tip: If accent or language barrier is a reason for not hiring someone, document that clearly after the interview. You’ll greatly reduce your chance of losing a lawsuit.

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