Based on the facts presented in the scenario below, how do you think the court ruled on this employment-law case?
Customer service supervisor Bethanne Grimes hung up the phone and turned to one of her reps, Chun Xi-Yang. “That was one of our big clients, Xi-Yang,” she said. “They just spoke with you and they’re not happy at all.”
“Why?” the rep asked.
“They said they could hardly understand you,” Bethanne replied. “They don’t know whether you made the change in their order that they wanted, or not.”
“Of course I make change,” Xi-Yang said. “I already do it.”
“That’s good to know, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem,” Bethanne said. “Which is that your English is just too hard to understand. I’ve been working with you for three months, and I still have trouble sometimes.”
Trying to improve
“I make strong effort to improve my English,” the rep protested. “I buy course on CD, everything.”
“That’s good, but not good enough,” Bethanne said. “At least half dozen customers have told me they either can’t understand you, or they have to listen very hard, and even then they’re not sure they got their message across. I’m sorry, but it’s just not working out. You can finish your shift, but this is your last day with us. I’ll get your pay ready for the end of the day.”
“You are firing me?” Xi-Yang asked incredulously.
“I’m letting you go, yes,” Bethanne said.
“Why you not give me other job?”
“There’s nothing else available,” Bethanne said. “My decision is final.”
“I know real problem,” Xi-Yang said. “Chinese people not wanted here.”
“Nonsense,” Bethanne said. “We have lots of foreign-born reps in this center. And a number who have accents. But they can be easily understood, which is a requirement of the job.”
Xi-Yang wasn’t persuaded by Bethanne’s explanation, and sued for national origin discrimination.
Did she win?
No. The judge said Xi-Yang had no case.
Xi-Yang argued that supervisor Bethanne fired her based on isolated complaints.
But the court pointed out that the complaints were far from isolated: Bethanne documented eight specific complaints from customers whose interactions with her company were impeded by Xi-Yang’s lack of English fluency. Bethanne also documented her own difficulties communicating with Xi-Yang.
Also, the court said, an ability to communicate in English was central and not peripheral to Xi-Yang’s duties. The fact that she could not carry these out had nothing to do with her Chinese national origin, but rather with her lack of English-language facility.
Cite: Beaver v. McHugh, No. 09-cv-2257, D. D.C., 1/9/12.
Subscribe to the Leadership Blog
Get the latest research on workplace learning with weekly posts delivered to your inbox