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[Real Life HR] Manager Comments on Employee's Accent

[Real Life HR] Manager Comments on Employee's Accent

Q: An employee says their manager told them to lose their accent if they ever want to be promoted. Could this be considered discrimination?


A: Yes. Discrimination based on national origin is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and includes treating applicants or employees unfavorably because they are from a particular country or region of the world, speak with an accent, or appear to be of a certain ethnic background. Even if the manager didn’t follow through on the lack of promotion, ongoing comments from the manager about the employee’s accent could also be considered harassment. We recommend that you take this situation seriously and investigate it immediately.

While there are some limited circumstances where an employee’s accent might be legitimately and legally career-limiting, these are few and far between. Usually customers, coworkers, and managers just need to exercise patience and seek clarification.

For more information about national origin discrimination, see below.

National origin discrimination is based on differences in ancestry, heritage, or national background. All employees have a protected status because all possess a particular ancestry, heritage, or national origin.

Discrimination Prohibited Under Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against any person with respect to the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the individual’s national origin. Discrimination on the basis of national origin in hiring, promotion, training, job assignment, discipline, or termination is prohibited. 

Protected Individuals

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) maintains that Title VII extends protection against national origin discrimination beyond national ancestry to characteristics generally identified with individuals from particular ancestral backgrounds. Such extended protection includes:

  • Marriage to or association with a person of specific national origin.
  • Membership in or association with an organization identified with or seeking to promote the interests of a certain national origin.
  • Attendance at, or participation in, schools, churches, temples, or other places that are generally used by persons of a particular national origin.
  • Use of an individual’s or spouse’s name that is associated with a particular national origin.
  • Membership in a particular American Indian tribe.

Discrimination Based on Accent and English-Only Rules

Employers cannot arbitrarily base an employment decision on an individual’s foreign accent. If a person has an accent but is able to communicate effectively and be understood in English, they cannot be discriminated against.

Additionally, the EEOC has stated that rules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violates Title VII unless the employer can show that they are justified by business necessity. A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified. An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently. Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include: 

  • Communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English;
  • Emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; and
  • Cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.

Even if there is a need for an English-only rule, an employer may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule and the consequences of violating it.

Have more HR questions related to your employees? Partner with our team of HR Professionals!

This Q&A does not constitute legal advice and does not address state or local law.


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