Aversion to accent or national origin discrimination?

by on January 5, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Disparate treatment can lead to national origin lawsuit.

“Are you aware that Patrick Reeves has asked me to leave the company?” Portia Hamilton-Ives asked HR manager Fran Clayton.

“Patrick told me it wasn’t working out,” Fran said. “He said you weren’t a good team player, and you often didn’t follow instructions.”

“That’s easy to say, team player, but I’m not quite sure what it means,” Portia said in a British accent that six years in America hadn’t erased. “Isn’t it rather a convenient fig leaf when you don’t like somebody?”

“I think Patrick meant what he said,” Fran responded firmly. “He’s a highly experienced manager and he knows how to build effective teams.”

Unfriendly mimicry instigates a national origin lawsuit

“I don’t suppose it would interest you to know that one of my… teammates …” – Portia let the word drop like a dirty rag – “one of my teammates has consistently complained about working with somebody with ‘a funny accent.’ And that this somebody was seen sitting on Patrick’s desk drinking champagne last Friday after work.”

“I suppose you mean Leslie,” Fran said. “Patrick did mention that the two of you didn’t get along. Which is a shame. But he has no complaints about her performance.”

“He wouldn’t, would he?” Portia said archly. “I’ll wager he hasn’t told you that that woman mimics my speech behind my back. Or that she’s told me more than once I should quit and go back where people talk like I do. And Patrick hasn’t put a stop to it.”

Fran ended the conversation, but not before Portia threatened to sue.

Later, as good as her word, Portia did file suit for national origin discrimination. Did she win?

Yes, Portia’s case made it over the first hurdle when a judge said it was strong enough to go to trial. The company either had to settle, or spend even more time and money defending the ethnicity discrimination case.

The judge noted that one teammate had kept up a constant barrage of criticism of Portia’s accent and national origin, and Portia’s supervisor did nothing to stop it.

This made it seem likely Portia hadn’t been fired because of her performance, but because of national origin discrimination. And that’s illegal.

The judge said Portia was subjected to “intimidation, ridicule and insult” because of her national origin.

Bad impersonations can lead to national origin discrimination lawsuits

Today’s cosmopolitan workplace obliges both employees and managers to look again at ingrained habits.

One way people like to fool around is to affect an accent – Mexican, Scottish, Chinese, Russian, etc. There’s lots of precedent for this kind of “humor” – just look at the popularity of Borat and his Kazakh shtick.

But this case suggests that HR may want to remind supervisors to keep a lid on such impersonations, especially if it can be taken as mockery or ridicule.

Remember: Any kind of disparate treatment between groups can set up a company for a time-consuming and distracting legal battle.

Cite: Rutty v. Equi-Management Services, No. CIV-05-1272-F, D. Colo., 1/9/07. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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