Is Your Workplace Free of Accent Discrimination?

The American dream has brought about global cultures within the borders of the United States of America. It resulted in a mixing pot of different cultures and subcultures that include food, values, languages, and more.

In the United States, there are at least 350 languages spoken, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the globe. One might think that being considered as one of the most linguistically diverse countries, the US doesn’t have accent discrimination in the workplace.

There are few sources of large-scale studies on accent discrimination in the workplace. However multiple accounts across the globe and isolated studies from reputable institutions have taken notice of its reality in the business world

Research has claimed that innately, people have the natural inclination to have linguicism or “accenticism” without realizing it. It further explains that people tend to unconsciously categorize people into a specific social class and make preconceived judgments against them based on their accents.

And for the victims who are profiled into this social sector, it can be difficult to go about their professional careers when a part of their being and culture is attacked by perpetrators who are sometimes even unaware of their doings. 

A study by Pierre W. Orelus draws insights from testimonials from participants over the course of a year to understand the correlation between linguistic minorities and accent discrimination. Orelus discovered that the participants’ testimonials suggest that individuals belonging to linguistic minorities play a significant role in accent discrimination because of their non-standard English.

Closer look at accent bias

For a closer look, let’s take Saadia Khan’s account of how she has experienced accent bias in the USA. The social entrepreneur narrates how she was shopping at a high-end store in Greenwich, Connecticut. A salesperson approached and started asking her about where she was from originally. The conversation was normal up until the salesperson emphasized Khan’s noticeable accent despite living in the USA for nearly two decades.

Regardless of whether the store employee meant well or not, Khan began to reflect on how Americans view different accents in a more social sense. From her reflection, one of the more notable things for her was that accents from French or Spanish-speaking individuals are hailed in high regard in pop culture and the media while accents from the Middle East, Asia, or Africa are not considered at par with the mentioned European counterparts. There seems to be an accent hierarchy.

But is there a legal basis to define accent discrimination as a valid violation in the workplace?

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is illegal to refuse to hire or discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race. While it does not explicitly mention accent discrimination as a legal violation, the Equal Employment Commission recognizes that accent-related discrimination can often mean discrimination against national origin and therefore outlaws the act.

3 types of language-related discrimination

To better visualize cases of accent-related discrimination, an article from the UNT Dallas College of Law elaborates on the three main types of language-related discrimination.

Multilingual discrimination is the first type where the employee is being discriminated against by the employer because the employee fluently speaks more than one language. In many cases, multilingual employees are asked to translate from one language to another. Even with this extra task, organizations tend to overlook this and, thus, underpay these employees.

The second is language discrimination. It occurs when the employer discriminates against an employee for speaking a language other than the common language spoken within the workplace. 

Lastly, accent discrimination is defined as when an employer discriminates against employees because of their accents. Employees can only make valid claims on accent discrimination when an accent does not interfere with an employee’s ability to carry out tasks. These workers usually include teaching, customer service, and telemarketing.

Accent discrimination has been a common issue among teams in companies that involves a diverse group of people. Though English is the primal language of communication across different industries, the world has begun to see the reality that tapping global talent is beneficial to organizations and that often entails having workers from different parts of the world who speak different languages.

Global mobility leaders recognize that ever since the dawn of new technology, cultural barriers have begun to weaken. However, they also understand that there is much to work on, most especially within the social issues that are brought about by having a globally diverse workforce.

At the end of the day, organizations have to determine what best practices need to be implemented across teams to prevent any cases filed against them for discriminatory actions.