“I am a recent college graduate with a degree in business administration and applied for a sales job at a black-owned insurance agency.
“Within seconds of meeting the owner for an interview, he said, ‘You will do well anywhere except here! Even though we are both black, you sound like a white TV anchor! Our clients come from the black part of town, and hiring you would cost me business. Some time ago, when I hired a black gal who sounded white, the other employees gave her the cold shoulder and my agency lost business. It’s unfair, but reality.’
“Mr. Beaver, I came from a family of teachers who respected the English language. They spoke Standard American English and over the phone you would never know their race.
“At my mostly black university, it was crazy – because I both spoke and wrote grammatically correct English, most black students shunned me, but I was welcome among the white and Hispanic kids. In fact, in my entire life, I only felt racism and bias from blacks, not from any other race! I have been accused of being a traitor to the black race!
“But what about this insurance company? This is discrimination, isn’t it? Friends have suggested filing a complaint with the EEOC. What do you recommend? Thanks, “Teddy.”
Can an Employer Base a Hiring Decision on Accent or Language Fluency?
I ran Teddy’s extremely interesting situation by attorney Ernest Haffer with the Office of Legal Counsel at the EEOC, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C.
“Can an employer base a hiring decision on poor language skills or accent?” I asked.
“You need to examine what language skills are needed for the job,” he replied. “A telephone receptionist would need much better abilities than a custodian, for example.
“When it comes to accents–typically foreign accents–the issue boils down to this question: Does the accent interfere with the applicant’s ability to communicate on the job? Does the person’s accent materially interfere with job duties?
“Teddy’s situation has one more significant element: Race. He is black and was facing racial discrimination by a black employer. It is illegal to base a hiring decision on the applicant having a black accent, or sounding white. Would it materially interfere with his job duties? We might find the employer’s assumption that it would to be illegal and file an action against him.
“Also, customer preference can’t be the basis for discrimination, or attitude of co-workers, even if the employer has been in a similar situation before. If Teddy were hired and did not perform–loses sales–and the criteria for who to keep and who to let go is applied neutrally–he could be let go, but not because of the way he sounded,” Haffer concluded.
To Business This is a Lose–Lose Situation
I spoke with a number of HR people in the worlds of insurance and media advertising for their opinion. All were sympathetic to Teddy, but felt, as did “Pete,” an advertising manager for a Northern California media group, who stressed common sense business realities.
“We buy from the people we like, trust and admire. If a job is primarily, or initially “over the phone, “your voice is a great tool. However, if you sound markedly different from the typical client, this could represent a difficult challenge.
“So, to a local insurance broker who works with predominantly black customers, it would be well within the realm of common sense to want to hire people who have a higher likelihood of identifying on a personal level with his prospective clientele.
“This is a lose-lose situation. If he hires Teddy, from experience he knows that his sales will not be as good as someone else who “sounds black.” End result: the owner loses money. If he doesn’t hire him for “not sounding black enough,” he will probably lose a lawsuit and lose money. Even if the employer wins, he has to pay legal fees. And voila, welcome to the paradigm of modern day American business where common sense has little place.”
What do Employment Lawyers Say?
I ran this by several employment lawyers and received varying recommendations for Teddy. Could be file a claim with EEOC? Yes, he could, or, if he were in California, with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment.
“But should he, that is the question,” Southern California attorney “Trisha” told me, asking that her name not be revealed. At his young age, this is not the time to establish a presence online as someone who sues an employer. If advised by an attorney to file a complaint, he must ask himself this question; “Who has more to benefit – me or the attorney who takes the case?”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.