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Q&A: We interviewed a candidate who ... spoke with a thick accent. Is it okay to reject a candidate because their accent made it difficult to understand them?

Question:

We interviewed a candidate who had the right type and length of experience but spoke with a thick accent. Is it okay to reject a candidate because their accent made it difficult to understand them?

Answer from Kara, JD, SPHR:

There is risk in rejecting the candidate based on their accent, as this may be perceived as national-origin discrimination, which is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII, and says the following regarding accent discrimination:

In assessing whether an individual's accent materially interferes with the ability to perform job duties, the key is to distinguish a merely discernible accent from one that actually interferes with the spoken communication skills necessary for the job.

“Materially interferes” is the standard that will apply, but we don’t have a hard and fast definition of what that means. If you are confident that the candidate’s accent will actually prevent them from performing the functions of the job, then you could eliminate them on that basis. But if you are only speculating that it could be a problem, or are thinking it might rub other employees the wrong way, it should not be a basis for your decision.

For instance, if you were hiring for a receptionist who will interact frequently with clients on the telephone, and you had to ask the candidate to repeat themselves multiple times during the interview because they were legitimately difficult to understand, then the accent would likely be an acceptable reason to eliminate that candidate. On the other hand, if you were hiring for a dishwasher, delivery driver, software programmer, or other position where oral communication was less essential, then the accent would not be a valid reason to reject the candidate.

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Kara practiced employment and bankruptcy law for five years before joining us and was a Human Resources Generalist at an architecture and engineering firm for several years prior to that. As an attorney, she worked on many wage and hour and discrimination claims in both state and federal court. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oregon State University and earned her law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School.

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