In the U.S., job listings that require a potential employee to speak English with a “neutral” accent are illegal in almost all situations. But on LinkedIn and other job listings sites, employers are requiring applicants have just that.
A search for “neutral accent” on LinkedIn turned up at least 57 live job listings in the U.S., while a similar search on Monster.com turned up 12 listings.
The positions are mostly for language teaching or interpretation jobs but some are for unrelated industries. “A neutral accent is a must,” according to one LinkedIn job listing for a sales executive at a cloud services company called Zymr in San Jose. On Monster, a position for a Reservation Specialist for Expedia requests “Accent neutral verbal communication as verified by an Expedia-approved formal test.” A remote IT support company called VDart has several listings that specify “communication in neutral accent over phone” as one of the job responsibilities.
The listings do not define what is meant by “neutral accent,” and Zymr, VDart, Expedia, and Sykes, the company that posted the Expedia listing, did not respond to requests for comment. LinkedIn did not comment when reached by The Outline.
“Treating employees differently because they have a foreign accent is lawful only if accent materially interferes with being able to do the job,” the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission writes. “If a person has an accent but it is able to communicate effectively and be understood in English, he or she cannot be discriminated against.”
“Everyone has an accent,” Noah Zatz, a law professor at UCLA told The Outline via email. “If there is no barrier to effective communication and to modeling appropriate English grammar, word choice, etc., the accent shouldn’t matter.” Accents are separate from the question of English fluency, he noted. Some of the listings for English teachers might not be illegal. “If the goal is to teach students a specific accent, then it might be relevant,” he said, “but the employer would have to prove that in fact this was essential to the job.”
“People in power are perceived as speaking normal, unaccented English.”
Some job listings list a neutral accent as a bonus, or something that would enhance the candidate's chance of being hired, but even that could be considered discriminatory. “If the criterion is discriminatory, making it a ‘bonus’ or preference does not change anything because there is still a double standard,” Zatz said. “Between two otherwise equally qualified candidates, this would be a policy of using a discriminatory consideration to break the tie. Imagine an ad that said ‘white people preferred.’”
There may be some cases where employers could legally require an applicant to have a neutral accent, Deborah Malamund, a professor who teaches labor law at New York University explained to The Outline. “The way the law works is that language discrimination is a form of national origin discrimination, and national origin discrimination is permissible where a particular national origin (or here, absence of an accent related to it) is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job,” Malamund said in an email.
But instances where asking for a specific accent would be permissable are rare. An example might be recruiting an actor to play a historical figure with a recognizable accent, Antone Aboud, Professor of Practice at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State told The Outline via email. “It used to be that broadcast companies commonly sought ‘neutral’ accents for newscasters; however, the [EEOC] rule would suggest that is no longer permissible.”
American lawyer and professor at the University of Hawaii Mari J. Matsuda wrote what Zatz described as the classic law review article on the topic of hiring discrimination based on accents. In her article, “Voices of America,” published in 1991 in the Yale Law Journal, Matsuda posed two questions. There’s a small question, Matsuda writes, of applying anti discrimination law to accent-bias. There’s another much larger question: What kind of world do we want to live in?
“Your accent carries the story of who you are—who first held you and talked to you when you were a child, where you have lived, your age, the schools you attended, the languages you know, your ethnicity, whom you admire, your loyalties, your profession, your class position: traces of your life and identity are woven into your pronunciation, your phrasing, your choice of words,” Matsuda wrote. “Your self is inseparable from your accent. Someone who tells you they don't like the way you speak is quite likely telling you that they don't like you.”
Matsuda’s article is unabashedly partisan, pleading with the reader to “do the right thing” and advocating for the “dismantling structures of subordination and promoting radical pluralism,” found within the accent discrimination cases she analyzes. In her article, Matsuda rejects a common defense used by employers that refuse to hire an accented person, that the employer’s customers may have trouble understanding them, and bashes courts for their complacency in accepting this line of thinking.
“What employers purport to do when they identify an accent and declare it unintelligible is to apply neutral standards of evaluation to objective reality,” Matsuda writes. “The Anglo speech is normal, everything else is different, and acceptability of any given speech depends upon its closeness to Anglo speech. Everyone has an accent, but when an employer refuses to hire a person ‘with an accent,’ they are referring to a hidden norm of non-accent—a linguistic impossibility, but a socially constructed reality. People in power are perceived as speaking normal, unaccented English. Any speech that is different from that constructed norm is called an accent.”
The current iteration of the Department of Justice led by Jeff Sessions, the branch with potential oversight over discriminatory hiring practices, has already begun to scale back protections for workers. Earlier this year, the Justice Department argued in court that a key civil rights law protecting employees from discrimination does not protect gay people. Now, as President Trump pushes anti-immigrant policies and xenophobic sentiments, this type of discrimination is something that could potentially become more common.