Due to debates about immigration and cultural divides, emotions about national origin may run high in the workplace. Although the issues may be confusing, the law of the land is clear: Regardless of a person’s ancestry, he or she is entitled to the same basic opportunities as any other job applicant or employee at your manufacturing company.
The controlling federal law in this area is Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It applies to U.S. employers with 15 or more employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is entrusted with protecting the rights of employees under Title VII.
To illustrate the issues, take a look at the right-hand box to see how the EEOC resolved two cases involving alleged national origin discrimination by manufacturers.
In brief, national origin discrimination relates to unfavorable treatment of a person based on his or her ancestry, ethnicity or accent or the belief that the person has a particular ethnic background. It can also result from treatment towards a person who is married to someone with a particular ethnic background.
Here are several areas of concern for employers:
Job candidates. Under Title VII, employment decisions by company management — such as hiring, recruitment, layoffs and termination — cannot be based on a person’s national origin.
Harassment. Offensive conduct is prohibited if it creates a hostile work environment. For instance, employees on the assembly line cannot ridicule an employee’s accent or utter ethnic slurs. Employers must be vigilant in taking steps to prevent unlawful harassment. When violations are reported, react promptly to address the situation and, when necessary, implement corrections.
Language. Employment decisions can’t be based on a person’s accent unless the accent “materially interferes” with his or her job performance. Similarly, a fluency requirement may be permitted for certain telephone operators, but not assembly line workers.
A restriction to speak “English only” can only be adopted if it is necessary to promote safety or otherwise ensure efficient operation of the business.
In a question-and-answer section on its website, the EEOC has posed the following:
Q. Can an employer rely on co-worker preference in making employment decisions? For example, what should an employer do if current employees seem to prefer working with people of certain nationalities but not others?
A. Co-worker perceptions about an individual’s ancestry or ethnicity should not be the basis for an employment decision. Employment decisions that are based on the discriminatory preferences of co-workers are just as unlawful as decisions based on an employer’s own discriminatory preferences.
The rules under Title VII extend to foreign nationals employed in the country even if the workers do not have citizenship. However, relief may be limited if the person does not possess proper work authorization.
Reminder: The burden is on your company to avoid confrontations and to provide a work environment that is free of discrimination. It’s a responsibility to take seriously.