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Clients frequently ask me the difference between race and national origin discrimination.

This blog will specifically address what is becoming a common violation of law in the workplace, especially with regard to Arab Americans and people of Middle Eastern descent who commonly are referred to as “terrorist” or other pejorative names in the workplace.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on national origin by any employer with at least 15 employees.

However, not everyone has a clear understanding of what is meant by “national origin” in this context.

It is critically important for employers and employees alike to have a full grasp of conduct that is and is not acceptable under the law so that appropriate corrective action can be taken wherever necessary.

Put simply, an employer engages in national origin discrimination if he or she makes key employment decisions based upon an individual’s ethnicity, birthplace, ancestry or traits connected to the same, including accent, linguistic characteristics, surname and the like.


Furthermore, it is unlawful for employers to deny equal employment opportunities to individuals simply because they are married to or associate with individuals of a particular national origin.

Employment discrimination based on a person’s attendance at churches, schools or other social groups typically associated with a specific national origin identity is also strictly forbidden.

Types of Prohibited Conduct

When considering the conduct and behavior that are rightly considered to be discrimination based on national origin, it is necessary to think about a broad array of potential employer decisions, overt acts and omissions made because of ethnicity.

Adverse hiring decisions are among the most blatant ways in which national origin discrimination frequently occurs, but it is important to realize that recruitment, firing and layoff decisions can also embody impermissible emphasis on national origin.

Harassment in the workplace based on national origin is yet another realm of activity prohibited by Title VII.

Offensive verbal and non-verbal conduct involving ethnic slurs, degrading language and other actions that create hostility in the working environment are forbidden.

Employers have a duty to take necessary and appropriate steps to ensure that such harassment stops, and employees have a duty to report harassment in order to prevent it from becoming a serious problem.

Language Rules and National Origin Discrimination

Though national origin discrimination is taken very seriously and the statutory provisions prohibiting it are enforced diligently by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there are some instances in which employers may be permitted to impose workplace rules and policies pertaining to the accents and language fluency of their employees.

While it is true that employers are generally not allowed to make employment decisions based upon the foreign accent of an individual, an exception is made if the accent itself causes material interference with the person’s ability to perform the job functions required of him or her.

English fluency is permissible only if the job position at issue necessitates it in order for effective, efficient performance of the relevant duties.

English-only workplace rules are allowed only where demonstrable safety concerns are present and the use of multiple languages would pose real danger to the business, its customers and fellow employees.

The area of employment law is a truly complex landscape, and it can often be difficult for employees to determine whether or not conduct experienced in the workplace rises to the level of actionable discrimination.

As a dedicated employee rights attorney we can review the facts, identify employer violations and pursue full and fair compensation for victims.   Call us at 866-344-9243 (WAGE), or email us at [email protected], if you would like for us to review your issue, free of charge.