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Does Title VII Prohibit Discrimination Based on Accents?

by | Nov 13, 2020 | Workplace Discrimination |

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of foreign accent.  However, one’s foreign accent and their national origin are often intertwined, and courts can look to evidence of accent discrimination as evidence of national origin discrimination.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently addressed this issue and held that the Plaintiff produced sufficient evidence that his employer had discriminated against him because of his accent.

The Plaintiff in Iyoha v. Architect of the Capitol, who was born in Nigeria, was reassigned after his supervisor made several comments about his accent.  In their defense, the employer claimed that the reassignment was motivated solely by the Plaintiff’s poor performance scores; however, the Court held that a reasonable jury could conclude that the low scores were motivated by bias.  Interestingly, the employer did not attempt to argue that the Plaintiff’s accent legitimately interfered with his job duties, and therefore his reassignment served a legitimate business purpose.  Courts have previously held that if an employee’s language skills interfere with their ability to do their job, that might be a legitimate basis for an adverse employment action.

Employers who genuinely believe that one of their employee’s accents interferes with their job duties have to be very careful.  While there is nothing wrong with an employer making an honest assessment of an employee’s communications skills when such skills are reasonably related to job performance, they need to do so in a respectful and objective way that does not give the appearance of national origin discrimination.  Employers should consult with an attorney before taking any adverse action against an employee because of their accent.

If you have any questions about national origin discrimination, or any area of employment law, contact Thatcher Zavaro & Mani at 301-850-1246www.ThatcherLaw.com. Email me at [email protected].  Follow us on: