Friday, July 27, 2007

Foreign accents as direct evidence of national origin discrimination

According to the EEOC:
An employment decision based on foreign accent does not violate Title VII if an individual's accent materially interferes with the ability to perform job duties. This assessment depends upon the specific duties of the position in question and the extent to which the individual's accent affects his or her ability to perform job duties. Employers should distinguish between a merely discernible foreign accent and one that interferes with communication skills necessary to perform job duties. Generally, an employer may only base an employment decision on accent if effective oral communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual's foreign accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate orally in English. Positions for which effective oral communication in English may be required include teaching, customer service, and telemarketing. Even for these positions, an employer must still determine whether the particular individual's accent interferes with the ability to perform job duties.

In re Rodriguez demonstrates these principles. Jose Rodriguez applied and was rejected for two vacant supervisory positions at FedEx, despite the hiring manager believing him to be qualified for the positions. The Human Resource Manager, Adkinson, however, expressed concern that Rodriguez was difficult to understand and that his Hispanic accept and speech pattern would adversely affect his ability to rise through the company's ranks. Witnesses also attributed to Adkinson disparaging comments about Rodriguez's "language" and "how he speaks." After trying to be promoted for nearly a year, Rodriguez ultimately gave up, resigned, and sued FedEx for national origin discrimination. The Sixth Circuit held that Adkinson's comments concerning Rodriguez's accent was direct evidence of national origin discrimination, and sent the case back to the district court to determine FedEx would have refused to promote Rodriguez even without a discriminatory motive. In reaching that conclusion, the Court reinforced that "accent and national origin are inextricably intertwined," and that the EEOC "recognizes linguistic discrimination as national origin discrimination." It is probably little solace for FedEx that the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of the hostile environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation claims. Now it will have to prove to a jury the legitimacy of its termination in the face of the HR Manager's comments.