Quick response needed! : Screening out qualified candidates who sound "too black", "too southern", "

When a candidate for employment passes all testing and rates high for possible employment, but is screened out as sounding unprofessional or has an annoying accent - is that legal?

Has anyone had any experience with this type of discrimination?

I'm referring to applicants who otherwise speak standard American English with acceptable grammar.

I need some feedback by 11 pm, 6/6/01, if possible.


  • 15 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • This one has lawsuit written all over it. For starters you should consider the possibility that this person could be a tester. That is a person whose full-time career is looking for evidence of discrimination so that a lawsuit can be filed.
    Even if this person is not a tester, I do not think that an annoying accent can be considered an essential function of any job (other something like a professional translator).
    My advice is: you better hire this person, and either find a position where the accent is not a problem or work with him on his speaking.

  • Thank you for your quick feedback. When you say "tester", are you talking about a tester for EEOC, AAP or unions?
  • Tester could be for any of the groups you mentioned. Of course it all winds up with the EEOC, so it doesn't really matter that much. One related thought: Assume that all of your want ads in the newspaper or other media will be reviewed by the EEOC for bias. They can take a very broad definition of bias. For example - The term "high energy" can be considered a bias in favor of the young. One phrase used to screen out Americans of color is the term "corporate image".
    It just goes on and on. Good luck!
  • The ability to communicate effectively can and should be a requirement for many types of jobs. The question is whether someone's accent prevents them from communicating effectively for the particular job. If your talking about sales or telemarketing type positions, good communication skills can surely be a BFOQ. If you're talking labor/production type work, probably not.

    But, who's to say a person's accent is "annoying"? Your accent may be annoying to them. So much depends on the job that a definitive answer is impossible to give you. If you're looking for telemarketers, hire them and you'll probably need to get rid of them for poor production if their accent is that bad. If it's a VP of sales, then no way.
  • Thank you for responding so quickly!
  • Here's a response from Southern California, the land of many languages and accents. Screening by accent is OK if it is job related, and that is the issue. As used as an example by one of the other responders, if telemarketers cannot be understood by their audience then it is possibly job related but how do you know if you don't hire the person who seems to have a hard to understand accent? Further, some people are adept at understanding accents and others aren't, or don't want to. Be careful with this one!
  • What do you do with a manager who refuses to hire qualified candidates of a certain ethnic group, e.g. asian or african-american, but is overtly discreet about it?
  • Here's a link to an article on voice discrimination on HRhero.com:


    Although the article suggests that voice discrimination based on whether you like or dislike the way someone sounds isn't actionable, I'd be on the safe side and go with Craig's advice. There have been several cases in which employees' accents interfered with their ability to do their job well (a black police dispatcher's accent prevented police officers from understanding her and a Haitian employee's inability to understand English resulted in the wrong supplies being ordered and departments getting their deliveries mixed up). In those cases, it was acceptable to transfer or fire the employees because they couldn't perform the requirements of their jobs. I'm not sure how an "annoying" accent would interfere with the employee's ability to do the job well. You or your employment law counsel will need to weigh the facts of your situation and make that call.

    Christy Reeder
    Website Managing Editor
  • Thank you for the link, and I agree about contacting counsel.
  • As many of the others have stated, you have every right to be concerned about REAL communication problems, but make sure they are legitimate! Although there is no anti-discrimination that specifically covers regional accents (race-related accents are a different animal, however)the EEOC guidelines say that the employer must show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the denial of an employment opportunity based on a person's accent or manner of speaking. In two recent claims, 1)the EEOC pursued a complaint from a Chinese-American telemarketing interviewer who was terminated due to her heavy accent(the employer settled for $55,000...her production record did not show she had communication problems) and 2) the agency settled with an employer for $110,000 in a case where an African-American complained to have been passed over for because of sounding "too black".
    The clear message from the EEOC is: Be very, very careful!
  • The key to any job screening is that the requirment be related to the essential functions of the job. I would analyze this accent requirement similiar to a requirement that employees use English only. Is there really a legitimate reason for the requirment (and does the accent really mean that the person cannot do the job?).

    For example, if the employee can be understood and it is not part of the employees job to deal with the public and make presentations (for example a sales employee or a tv spokes person), then the employees accent should not be a factor.

    Also, I think it is too easy for a company to use this type of criteria as a pretext for discrimination.

    Good Luck!!
  • In reply to the question about the "discrete" manager who does not hire certian minority or enthics:

    This is why we HR types need to learn to "run the numbers." Keeping accurate records, and periodically reviewing the statistical measures of our performance, both individually and as a company, will point out problems like this.

    When approaching the "discrete" manager, be equally discrete. Do not confront him with "evidence of discrimination." Rather, share with him some court cases on disparate impact (statistical evidence cases) and the cost to employers to settle or litigate them. Point out that whether or not discrimination was intended is not important in these cases, it is the statistical pattern that creates the problems both for the manager and the company. Offer to help this manager review and retool his or her selection processes and ensure that they are fair, unbiased and will stand up to a third party review.
  • Do you think this type of problem is becoming more pervasive now that more business is done over the phone?
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