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National Origin Discrimination and Harassment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) published guidance states that “national origin discrimination” means treating someone less favorably because he’s from a certain place or belongs to a particular national origin group.

A “national origin group” is a group of people sharing a common language, culture, ancestry, and/or other similar social characteristics. According to the EEOC’s guidance, the prohibition against national origin discrimination includes discrimination against any national origin group, including larger ethnic groups (such as Hispanics or Arabs) and smaller groups (such as Kurds).

The prohibited discrimination encompasses discrimination based on ethnicity, physical, linguistic, or cultural traits, or an employer’s perception that an individual is a member of a particular national origin group.

Mastering HR Report: Discrimination

National origin discrimination often overlaps with race discrimination or religious discrimination. For example, an Egyptian who’s subjected to harassment about his Arab ethnicity and to derogatory comments about Islam would have a claim based on both national origin and religious discrimination. The EEOC’s guidance states that employers may not rely on customer or coworker preference as a basis for discrimination.

The EEOC pays particular attention to charges alleging that individuals have been denied equal employment opportunities for reasons that are grounded in national origin considerations, such as:

  • marriage to or association with persons of a national origin group;
  • membership in or association with an organization identified with or seeking to promote the interests of national origin groups;
  • attendance or participation in schools, churches, temples, or mosques generally used by persons of a national origin group; and
  • an individual’s name or spouse’s name associated with a national origin group.

Charges of discrimination based on national origin often are accompanied by charges of “harassment.” This type of harassment typically takes the form of ethnic slurs, graffiti, or other offensive conduct directed toward an individual’s birthplace, ethnicity, culture, or accent.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination

Federal and state laws prohibiting national origin discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin. Many states also have similar civil rights laws that affect employers.

State-by-state comparision of 50 Employment Laws in 50 States, including national origin discrimination

Accent discrimination and fluency requirements. Personnel decisions based on accent are closely scrutinized because linguistic characteristics are an element of national origin. But an employer may base an employment decision on accent if the job in question requires effective oral communication in English and the individual’s accent significantly interferes with the ability to communicate orally in English. Similarly, fluency requirements are permissible if required for the effective performance of the particular job.

English-only rules. The EEOC’s guidance states that an “English-only” rule is permissible if the employer needs it to operate safely or efficiently.

Citizenship requirements. It isn’t unlawful per se to impose a citizenship requirement. It violates Title VII, however, if it has the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin.

Audit your national origin non-discrimination policies and practices with the Employment Practices Self-Audit Workbook