Discrimination in Hiring Is Always Bad. But It Might Not Always Be Illegal

Eluned Anderson received a rejection email for a job application. That part is normal. What isn’t normal is why the hiring manager rejected her. The email contained this explanation:

It was decided that your strong Welsh accent, accompanied by your regional activities, would not suit the office environment.

This is a weird reason to reject someone, and if you’re in the U.S., it could also be an illegal reason to reject someone. It could also be legal–so here’s the difference for employers in the United States.

National origin discrimination is illegal

In the United States, you can’t discriminate against someone on the basis of where they were born or their citizenship. As long as they are legal to work, you have to consider them like everyone else. (There are some exceptions for jobs with security clearances, but that’s not the general rule.)

So, if their accent comes from being born outside of the U.S. or English is their second language, you could be breaking the law. Business attorney Josh Joel, counsel at Stanton Law, explains:

Refusing to hire someone on the basis of their accent can be dangerous territory. Federal law forbids making employment decisions on the basis of national origin, and a foreign accent is a clear reflection of national origin.

In Anderson’s case, they rejected her because her Welsh accent was too strong. In the U.S. (understanding that Anderson is in the U.K. and under different rules), that could result in a strong national origin discrimination case.

That doesn’t mean you have to hire someone you cannot understand (as long as speaking English is required for the job–plenty of jobs don’t even require the ability to speak or understand English). Attorney Joel explains:

The only exception is if the candidate’s accent is so difficult to understand that it will impede them from effectively performing the core functions of the job. Examples where this may apply include certain phone-based positions, such as telemarketers. But I strongly suggest that you speak to an employment lawyer before declining a job offer because of an employee’s accent.

Regional accents are a different story

What if you don’t want to hire someone who sounds like a New Yorker, a Southerner, or a Philadelphian? Jon Hyman, an employment attorney and partner at Wickens Herzer Panza and a native Philadelphian, says,

While I’d love to think that “Philly” is a protected class and that I can drink my glass of wooder without fear of discrimination, alas, it is not.

Weirdly, you can discriminate against a native Philadelphian for their accent but not against a native Brazilian. Regional accents don’t have protection. 

Of course, as long as you can understand someone, their accent shouldn’t make any difference. 

But keep in mind that accents are only part of why people speak the way they do. Hyman adds, “But a ‘Black’ accent or ‘gay’ affect … different story.” If you discriminate against someone because they sound like a protected class, you’re doing so illegally.

Your best bet? Don’t judge people on their accents, but on their ability to do the job. It prevents you from breaking the law and treating people poorly, and gets you a more diverse workforce. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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