Settlement Agreements and Discrimination of Accents

Question: Is it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their accent? Answer: Sometimes, yes. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against employees, workers and certain other groups, on the grounds of race which includes their “ethnic or national origins”. Accents can be an intrinsic part of having a particular national origin and increasingly apparent as the language of the workplace in the international business community is often not an individual’s first language. The discrimination may be direct e.g. “I’m not going to promote him - I don’t like the way he speaks”, it may be unlawful harassment e.g. mimicking someone’s accent and poking fun at it, or it may be indirect e.g. “only people who speak with an English accent are eligible for this job” (where this is not justified). What the law does not currently prohibit, however, is discriminating against someone because they have a regional accent if that accent is not associated with their ethnic or national origin. Speaking as a northerner myself, and proud of it, whilst I have often been mistaken for someone who comes from another country (!) having an accent which is not “posh” enough for some people would not give me a legal cause for complaint in and of itself. What I would recommend to any employee who feels their accent is causing them to be treated less favourably at work, however, is to lodge a grievance and draw senior management and HR attention to the fact that this is how you feel. Regional accents are a rich and accepted part of our heritage and an Employment Tribunal would expect an employer to take such a grievance seriously, meaning that a poor or no response might lead to a claim of constructive dismissal. Jenny Okafor-Jones is an Employment Law Barrister and Head of Employment and Immigration at top 100 law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys.
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