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Did your accent cost you a job promotion?

Everyone speaks a bit differently. Whether you come from the Deep South, the Bronx, middle America, a foreign country or somewhere else, you probably have some sort of accent. While the way you speak is likely an integral part of your identity, an accent may hold you back in the workplace. 

As you likely know, certain types of workplace discrimination violate federal law. While federal antidiscrimination provisions do not expressly cover your accent, other related laws may prevent your employer from using your accent as a reason to not promote you or otherwise discriminate against you.   

National origin discrimination 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws national origin discrimination. Provided you work at a place with at least 15 employees, your employer cannot use your national origin against you when making employment decisions. This includes hiring, firing, promotions and other workplace activities. Because accents often closely align with an individual’s national origin, using your accent to deny a promotion likely violates federal law. 

Legitimate job duties 

As you may suspect, not every job decision involving a person’s accent runs afoul of antidiscrimination laws. If your employer has a legitimate reason to consider your accent, doing so is probably okay. Generally, though, speaking clearly must be an integral part of your job. For example, if you work as a telemarketer or customer service representative, your accent may prevent you from accomplishing your job duties. If that is the case, your employer may move you to a different position or take another employment action without violating the Civil Rights Act. 

English-only rules 

Sometimes, employers establish rules that require employees to only speak English at work. If your employer has one of these requirements, there is a chance you face impermissible national origin discrimination. For an English-only rule to be valid, employers must have a legitimate and non-discriminatory rationale for implementing the rule. For example, your employer may require you and your colleagues to speak English to keep everyone safe while using dangerous machinery. 

If your manager chose not to promote you because of your accent, you may need to investigate whether your national origin played a role in the decision. If it did, you likely need to act quickly to assert your legal rights and protect your position within the company.

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