248-409-1900 dburke@mi-worklaw.com

By:  Bill Pilchak – 3/31/15

   The company is in a no-win situation whenever accents are discussed.

        Sometimes, people have no appreciation for the perspectives of others and have to be taught sensitivities that they do not share. That is one of the reasons for harassment training. Males, for example, generally do not care when someone, let alone a lady, touches them on the arm or shoulder. However, women may bristle at the merest physical contact by a man, no matter how innocuous.

I have stumbled upon such a sensitivity among the immigrant community. National origin cases have made up a substantial portion of our docket for years. We haven’t run the stats, but they may be the most frequently asserted litigation species that we defend.   So, let us give our readers a heads up.

Americans, of course, are a nation of immigrants. Except for the few who can trace their ancestors to the Mayflower or who are members of the DAR, most of us know if we are 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation Americans. If you are like our family, you may celebrate your ethnic heritage. So, it is natural for us to be interested in a more recent arrival’s journey to our country.

However, any exploration of that subject is fraught with peril and is best not pursued. Inquiries about an employee’s country of origin almost always rankle a recent immigrant, no matter how well-intentioned. Whether fabricated or disingenuous, most of our national origin harassment or discrimination cases include some complaint that the employer or co-workers ferreted out and then commented upon the plaintiff’s country of origin.

The same goes for mentioning accents. Though Americans are intrigued by accents, any mention of an employee’s accent will engender ill-will.  In virtually every national origin case, expect any discussion of one’s pronunciation to be presented as claims that management or co-workers made fun of or mocked the employee’s accent. Especially given the law on this point, the company is in a no-win situation whenever accents are discussed.   Although the ability to speak English clearly and accurately is a legitimate topic of discussion where the employee’s communication skills are especially important, usually, any mention of an accent is considered at least some evidence of discriminatory animus by the courts.

Of course, astute observers might note that plaintiffs in my caseload have a financial motive to embellish their outrage at any mention of their homeland or accent. So, let me tell you about the similar reaction of “John.”   John, who hails from an Eastern European country and has a charming accent to prove it, established a home remodeling business after coming to the U.S. John and an army of his “cousins” remodeled our home a few years ago, and we have continued to do business with and refer business to him. One day, in an attempt to convey my admiration at his pluck for establishing a business here, I mentioned that I believed that a higher percentage of recent immigrants established their own businesses than the children of my friends, though those children were backed by parental resources and had grown up in business-oriented homes. John did not take the comment to be the complement intended. Instead, he was highly offended. He drew himself up, and said proudly: “I am not an immigrant. I am a U.S. citizen!”

From my perspective, John was an immigrant who had become a citizen. To John, who had no financial motive in our discussion, any mention of his origins was perceived as an insult. As the title above suggests, these discussions are a no-win situation. Accordingly, simply avoid discussing accents and don’t explore the origins of foreign-born employees.