The U.S. workforce is in the midst of a sweeping demographic makeover, bringing new ethnic, national-origin and religious diversity—and new legal risks for employers.
With the increase in minorities comes corresponding diversity in language, culture and religious practices—all of which are protected in the workplace under federal and state discrimination laws.
To prevent discrimination claims, employers must become more attuned to their legal responsibilities regarding national origin, language and religious bias.
EEOC focus on national-origin bias
National-origin discrimination involves treating people (employees or applicants) unfavorably “because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not).” It can also involve treating people unfavorably because they’re married to (or associated with) a person of certain national origin.
The EEOC pushed national-origin bias into the spotlight last year when the agency listed “protecting immigrant, migrant or other vulnerable workers” on its list of priorities for the coming years.
Outlook: Employee claims of national-origin bias have nearly doubled in the past decade, jumping particularly quickly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Expect those numbers to rise as the number of ethnic minorities increases and the EEOC continues its campaign “through coordinated enforcement, outreach and training efforts” on the issue.
Note: To train your supervisors, distribute our Memo to Managers on this topic.
Language is closely associated with national-origin discrimination. The EEOC says English-only rules for employees are allowed only “if it is needed to ensure the safe or efficient operations of the employer’s business and is put in place for nondiscriminatory reasons.” So banning the speaking of Spanish in the breakroom is not legit.
The EEOC sets rules on what counts as a “business necessity” for an English-only rule. Examples: communications with customers, co-workers or supervisors who speak only English; or in safety situations in which workers must speak a common language; for cooperative work assignment.
Accent bias: The EEOC says employers can only require employees to speak fluent English “if fluency in English is necessary to perform the job effectively.”
In many cases, national origin or ethnicity is closely related to religion and race. It’s important to remember you are obligated to provide reasonable accommodation to employees’ religious practices when it’s possible to do so with no more than a minimum of hardship.