An accent is the noticeable difference in the way a person pronounces a language relative to a native speaker of that language. Certain sounds may not exist in one language, making it hard to pronounce them while speaking another. These noticeable differences in the way people speak can become the basis for treating employees who have accents differently than employees who are native speakers.
The Two Ways Accents are Recognized
There are two ways accents are recognized when people speak. People are said to have a ‘foreign’ accent when the language they are speaking is not their native language. A second language may contain sounds not familiar to the speaker, who may compensate by using sounds from his native language. We refer to the collaboration as the speaker’s accent.
The second way an accent is identified is within a population speaking the same language but having groups of people in different areas pronouncing some of the words differently. In the United States, we may say someone has a New York accent or a southern accent. Accents may not only be linked to the places people are from but can also be associated with certain traits and characteristics.
Why Accents are a Basis for Discrimination
Accents identify the speakers as being different. And sometimes, people attach perceptions to those differences. If the perception happens to be negative, it can create an unfair bias against the person who speaks with the accent. Recent studies have shown that there is indeed discrimination against persons who are perceived to speak with accents.
Persons seeking employment who speak with non-native accents can find it harder to land a job because they may be perceived as:
- Less qualified
- Lacking credibility
One explanation for the negative connotations that can be attached to the mere presence of an accent suggests the bias may be related to cognitive ability. A person speaking with an accent may be harder for native speakers to understand. When something is hard to understand, our brains must work harder to decipher the meaning. This increased mental difficulty may translate into a negative perception.
Laws Against Employment Discrimination Based on Accent
It is against both federal and state laws to base employment decisions on a person’s accent in most cases. Making employment-related decisions on the basis of the way a person talks discriminates unfairly unless a person’s language directly impacts the duties of a job or an employer’s business.
The California Civil Rights Department (formerly known as the Department of Fair Employment and Housing) enforces the state’s employment discrimination laws. In California, it is illegal for employers with 5 or more employees to discriminate on the basis of certain protected characteristics that might be used to unfairly differentiate employees. One such protected characteristic is ‘ancestry or national origin.’
Regulations enacted in 2018 regarding national origin discrimination specifically prohibit discrimination against job applicants or employees based on accent. There is an exception where an employer can prove that an accent ‘interferes materially with the applicant’s or employee’s ability to perform the job in question.’ The regulations also ban discrimination on the basis of a person’s English proficiency unless English proficiency is justified by business necessity.
Accent Discrimination is a Form of Language Discrimination
Accent discrimination is a type of language discrimination. Language discrimination is unfair treatment for any reason relating to a person’s language, manner of speaking, or vocabulary. Language discrimination can occur when companies have ‘English only’ policies and prohibit employees from using a different language while at work.
California law prohibits employers from restricting the use of any language in the workplace except under the following circumstances:
- Business necessity justifies the language restriction.
- If justified, any language restriction is as minimal as possible.
- The affected employees know when the language restriction is to be imposed and the consequences for not abiding by it.
Accent discrimination is not about a different language being spoken. It is about the manner in which the native language is being spoken. The only justifiable basis for treating an employee with an accent differently is when the accent itself significantly interferes with the effective performance of the job duties.
How Big a Problem is National Origin Discrimination in California?
Recent statistics show the number of national origin discrimination claims filed in California under both federal and state laws is a similar percentage of the total number of employment discrimination cases filed in each jurisdiction.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), national origin discrimination claims made up about 15% of the 4,130 federal employment discrimination claims filed in California in 2020. In the annual report of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) for 2020, national origin discrimination (including language restrictions) claims were approximately 14% of the 4,422 claims filed under California law.
The problem may actually be more pervasive than the statistics suggest because it is believed many instances of employment discrimination go unreported. Two recent studies reveal accent discrimination happens frequently enough that persons with accents perceive their accent as a potential career-limiting characteristic.
A study published by The Sutton Trust, a foundation focused on promoting social mobility in the United Kingdom, found that there is a social stigma associated with having a particular accent. Differing accents correlated to a social status hierarchy, and negative beliefs about an accent relating to a particular social status were deeply held and rarely changed. People with accents reported they worried throughout their lives about how their accents would affect their opportunities for success.
In a survey of 2,000 immigrants done by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 70% of Latino and Asian immigrants thought that California immigrants experienced discrimination in the workplace due to their accents. California houses 25% of the nation’s immigrant population, with Latinos and Asians making up the two largest immigrant groups within the state.
In most instances, discrimination by an employer based on an employee’s accent or other language characteristics is illegal. An employee who is treated unfairly because they have an accent may be able to file a claim to make an employer stop the discrimination and to collect compensation for the damage caused.