Watch Your Language: How an Accent Affects One’s Employment

by Andrey Vitko

The world is becoming a more and more international place. People from all over the world immigrate to different countries – and, obviously, they need to work. It can be a bearable task to learn a different language, but some people have a hard time learning to pronounce new sounds that they did not learn when they were young.[1] The result is accent, a specific way of pronunciation of a language, associated, for example, with a particular nation or region. So the question becomes, can one’s accent affect one’s employment status?

Apparently, it can. An example is the case of an ex-Russian truck driver, Ismail Aliyev, who was allegedly fired because of his hard Russian accent.[2] Ismail and his family fled from Russia to the state of Utah, seeking political asylum as Turks.[3] He started to work as a licensed truck driver in 2009, and, as his lawyer contended, this is where the first employment problem he encountered arose.[4]

This problem occurred in September 2012, when Ismail worked for GNB Trucking Company, a small business that owns and operates FedEx-branded trucks.[5] In September, as Aliyev says, he received a warning about his accent from a weigh-station.[6] It is unclear whether Ismail passed the English language sufficiency test at the company.[7] His son, who speaks flawless English, maintains that his father passed the test, while Ben Ishhanov, a manager for the trucking outfit, stated that Ismail failed the test given in the FedEx’s office.[8]

Subsequently, Ismail Aliyev filed a lawsuit at the end of 2012, with Robert Wilde as his representative.[9] Plaintiff contended that he was fired due to his national origin, and therefore his civil rights had been violated.[10] Defendant moved for dismissal for the failure to state a claim.[11] The court found these facts:

On August 25, 2011, Ismail was stopped by an inspection officer from the Iowa Department of Transportation for an inspection.[12] Among issuing a citation for exceeding the maximum hours of service in one shift, the inspector made a report claiming that Mr. Aliyev is a “Non-English Speaking Driver.”[13] The federal requirement is that the driver “can read and speak the English language sufficiently to converse with the general public, to understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language, to respond to official inquiries, and to make entries on reports and records.”[14] It further provides that “a motor carrier shall not require or permit a person to drive a commercial motor vehicle unless that person is qualified.”[15]

FedEx claimed that the company fired the plaintiff on the basis of federal requirement, while Ismail states that the company was required to perform a check before dismissing him.[16] The plaintiff, however, was not able to support his claim with any law.[17] The court ruled that “this disagreement . . . does not give rise to any inference that FedEx Ground terminated him on the basis of national origin, especially in light of the language of the regulations, which could arguably support FedEx Ground’s decision.”[18] Subsequently, on April 3, 2014, The United States District Court for the District of Utah granted the defendant’s 12(b)(6) motion.[19]

Ismail Aliyev may have lost this case, but there are more language-related violations happening and probably many more will happen, as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated that the percentage of workplace discrimination complaints based on national origin rose by 76% from 1997 to 2011, with more than 11,800 complaints filed.[20] Only time will tell, how many more claims will be filed, if the trend stays.[21] And the trend is likely to stay, as more and more people travel and work around the world.

[1] Betty Birner, ed., Why Do Some People Have an Accent?, Linguistic Society of America, http://www.linguisticsociety.org/files/Accent.pdf (last visited Oct. 24, 2014).

[2] Alanna Byrne, 5 labor and employment issues to watch in 2013, Inside Council (Jan. 25, 2013), http://www.insidecounsel.com/2013/01/25/5-labor-and-employment-issues-to-watch-in-2013?page=6.

[3]Discrimination Against Foreign Accents: A Growing Problem, Associated Press (Nov. 30, 2012, 8:55 AM), available at http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/11/30/discriminated-against-for-an-accent/.

[4] Id.

[5] Sami Martin, FedEx Driver Fired Over Accent Files Suit, Claims Discrimination, The Christian Post (Nov. 29, 2012, 8:04 AM), http://www.christianpost.com/news/fedex-driver-fired-over-accent-files-suit-claims-discrimination-85780/.

[6] Id.

[7] FedEx fires driver over Russian accent, lawsuit says, Associated Press (Nov. 28, 2012), available at http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/11/28/fedex-fires-driver-over-russian-accent-lawsuit-says/.

[8] Id.

[9] Complaint Against All Defendants, Aliyev v. Fedex Ground Package Sys., Inc., No. 2:12-CV-1079-TC, 2014 WL 1338583 (D. Utah, 2014), ECF No. 2.

[10] Aliyev, 2014 WL 1338583, at *1.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.; see also General Qualifications of Drivers, 49 C.F.R. § 391.11(b)(2) (2014).

[15] Aliyev, at *1; see also 49 C.F.R. § 391.11(a).

[16] Aliyev, at *2.

[17] Id.

[18] Id., at *5.

[19] Id., at *9.

[20] Paul Foy, More Workers Claiming Job Discrimination Over Language, Accents, Insurance Journal (Dec. 4, 2012), http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2012/12/04/272632.htm.

[21] See id.

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