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Judge makes it crystal clear: Question about accent not enough for a lawsuit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s some good news: Courts aren’t going to hold employers responsible for everything a co-worker or even a supervisor says to an employee.

Asking a simple question such as what type of accent an employee has or what country he grew up in won’t be enough to prove national-origin discrimination. Courts expect employees to talk to one another and without evidence that curiosity about an accent or a co-worker’s background is tied to some sort of discrimination, judges won’t hold employers liable for national-origin discrimination.

Recent case: John, who is of Iranian national origin and speaks with an accent, went to work as an engineer. His first performance review was satisfactory, but it soon became apparent that John had trouble getting along with co-workers and finishing projects on time and well. His reviews grew steadily worse and he was regularly coached on appropriate communication skills.

Eventually, the company terminated John for poor performance.

He sued, alleging that he was the victim of national-origin discrimination.

His evidence? Early on during his employment, his supervisor asked about John’s accent and John told him it was Iranian. However, John couldn’t recall anything derogatory said about his national origin, about Iran or about the accent.

The court threw out the case. A single question (or even a few) about an accent is not all by itself evidence of discrimination. (Trane v. Northrop Grumman, No. 11-CV-4040, ED NY, 2015)

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