It is well-known in places of employment that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. However, employers sometimes do not realize that their behavior actually constitutes discrimination under Title VII. One common example is when an employer treats an employee differently because English is not his or her first language or because they speak with an accent. Courts have held that discrimination based on language characteristics or quality falls under the purview of national origin because a person’s original language is usually very closely tied to his or her place of birth. Therefore, Title VII prohibits language discrimination despite the fact that the provision does not expressly say so. Just because employers may not be aware that their behavior is illegal, however, does not mean that employees should be expected to withstand such discrimination.
Common Forms of Language Discrimination
Thousands of companies in throughout the United States commonly hire foreign-born employees. Many of these employees may have some difficulty with the English language, or may speak English with a noticeable accent. Generally speaking, company owners, managers, and supervisors may not treat an employee differently because of language barriers, however many do. Some companies have made rules and policies that only English may be spoken in the workplace. Some employees have been denied jobs, raises, or promotions because they struggle with English. Other employees simply suffer regular harassment because of accents or misspoken words.
All of these behaviors are unacceptable except under very certain circumstances. For example, employers may not require employees to speak only English unless that policy is directly tied to a very legitimate business purpose. Furthermore, an employer may not deny an employee a job, raise, or promotion based on language unless the ability to perform the specific job in question requires an employee to regularly and clearly communicate in English. To illustrate, if an employee works in a manufacturing plant and has no contact with customers, his lack of English skills likely will have no effect on his ability to perform adequately and thus the employer may not treat him differently than any other employee. However, if an employee works in customer service or at a concierge desk, and the employer receives complaints from customers about communication difficulties, that employee may be transferred to a job in which his English skills are not an issue.
Even if an employer is not aware of their behavior, no employee should be expected to simply deal with harassment or disparate treatment in the workplace. Anytime you believe that your employer’s behavior may violate Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, you should contact an experienced employment attorney to see if you have a possible claim. Contact our office today.