But, apparently, “how you say it” also plays a big role in the workplace when it comes to foreign accents. National origin discrimination – including language ability and accents – has been on the rise.
Just last week, a suit was filed against FedEx by Ismail Aliyev, a Utah truck driver, claiming that although he offered to demonstrate his English-speaking proficiency to management, he was wrongfully terminated because of his Russian accent.
His suit is just one of many brought forth by workers alleging workplace discrimination for having a foreign accent. According to the EEOC, national origin and language discrimination complaints rose 76% between 1997 and 2011. More than 11,800 complaints were filed during that time and numerous settlements were won by workers who alleged harassment or reprimand for speaking in a foreign language or with an accent.
The EEOC attributes the rise in claims to the increasingly ethnically diverse labor force. Approximately 45 million Americans speak a language other than English in their homes and civil-rights advocates point out a correlation between hostile work environments and the passage of tougher immigration laws in some states.
John Mejia, the legal director for the ACLU of Utah says, “There’s definitely a climate of fear that’s bad for everybody.”
Aliyev was employed by GNB Trucking Co. who owns and operates FedEx-branded trucks and provides uniformed drivers to the company. Supposedly, issues arose months into Aliyev’s employment when an Iowa weigh station gave the company a warning for his Russian accent. It seems the ability to communicate clearly is a requirement for obtaining and holding a commercial driver’s license.
While Aliyev does have a noticeable accent, both he and his lawyer believe “it’s very understandable” and assert that while GNB found him to be an excellent employee, they were instructed by FedEx to terminate him. Evidently, Aliyev’s firing came from a manager who did not speak directly with him and his offers to demonstrate his language skills at FedEx headquarters were rejected.
Now working as an independent trucker, Aliyev says, “I think for a driver, my English is not too bad.” His son points out that this is not the first incident of discrimination experienced by the family. In 2005, the family was forced to flee Russia and entered Utah as political refugees. “It really does hurt,” says Elshad Aliyev, speaking impeccable English. “We lost everything in Russia.”
He agrees that his father can be somewhat difficult to understand on a phone conversation but says that in person he is able to communicate well enough.
FedEx controls the hiring and firing of its drivers and GNB manager Ben Ishhanov suggested that the firing may be a result of Aliyev failing an English test administered by a FedEx field office after his hire. Aliyev’s son, however, argues that his father passed the test and had held his CDL since 2009, driving without an issue up until FedEx ordered his termination.
“If FedEx told us to fire a driver, we can’t do anything about that,” says Ishhanov, in his self-proclaimed Armenian accent. “Some guys don’t know any English. That’s the problem.” But Wilde, who filed the suit in a Salt Lake City U.S. District Court seeking lost wages and punitive damages, contends, “FedEx just decided they didn’t want to deal with him.”