Can you be discriminated against because of your accent?


3 mins

Posted on 15 Jun 2011

In May this year Cheryl Cole was axed from the US version of the X Factor because of fears the American audience wouldn’t be able to understand her thick Geordie accent. However, should an employer be allowed to turn down a job applicant just because of their accent?

In a 2008 study of the worst accents in the UK, as voted for by 2,647 employers, it was found that 'accent discrimination' is perceived to be widespread.  According to the survey, the five worst accents were Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and 'London' Cockney.

So should an employer be allowed to turn down a job applicant just because of their accent? 

There is no legislation that specifically says it is discriminatory to treat someone differently because of their accent, however an employee may bring a claim for discrimination on the grounds of race or nationality if they are discriminated against for having a foreign accent.

An employer may have a defence to such claims if they can show that being easily understood is an “occupational requirement” for the job. However this defence only applies where clear communication is vital. For example it may succeed when the job involves such roles as teaching, working in customer service or on reception. It would not work where the job does not require much communication with others.

In Meshram v Talk Talk [2007] an employee was successful in suing his employer when he was moved out of his job because his accent “wasn’t English enough.” The defence failed as Mr Meshram’s job was to train other staff and he did not communicate directly with customers.

Contrast this with Hundal v Initial Security Ltd [2006]. The employer was able to show that its treatment of Mr Hundal was genuinely due to his difficulty in speaking English clearly, since his duties required him to communicate on the telephone.

So an employee with a foreign accent may claim race discrimination but what about someone with a Geordie accent being turned down for a job in London because their regional twang is too strong?

Sadly for Cheryl Cole, if she were an employee in the UK, she would have no grounds for claiming unlawful race discrimination, although there might be other remedies available to her (such as unfair dismissal).

Discrimination law covers less favourable treatment on the grounds of nationality, but this only includes discrimination on the grounds of being, for example, Irish or Scottish, it does not yet include discrimination because of the region of England from which the employee originates. 


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