[COLUMN] My Filipino accent cost me a promotion:  Is that legal?

Q: I am a college graduate in business management from the Philippines who migrated to the  United States. I got work as a caregiver at a nursing facility. After a few years, I was promoted to a  supervisor position: still providing direct care but also overseeing other caregivers. The patients and my co workers like me, so I enjoy the work.  

 Recently, I learned that the facility was hiring for a manager position. The job wouldn’t involve  providing direct care to patients, but would instead be on the business side. My college degree in business  management, and the fact that the job description shows that knowledge of our organization’s caregiving  operations would be an important part of the job, appears to make me qualified for the position. I showed  the job opening to one of the managers at the facility, and she agreed that I seemed qualified for the job  opening, so I applied.  

 When I went for the job interview, the person who interviewed me was from corporate. I had never  seen him before in the facility. He was friendly, but it seemed weird when he said he was surprised to see  that I was Filipino because I use my husband’s English last name. We talked about the job and I did  my best to show him that I was qualified.  

 He told me that he was impressed by my interview, but that he had concerns about my accent. He  said that the manager position involves a lot of interactions with patients’ families, and that because the  facility is in a predominantly white community, the clients might not be able to understand my accent. He  said that, from past experience, the clients in this community like Filipino caregivers but not Filipino  managers. He said he has nothing against me and other Filipinos, but that the company has to respect the  clients’ feelings.  

 I didn’t get the job. The company hired a white woman for the manager position. She seems nice,  but she doesn’t even know what we do here. And when I spoke to her, I found out that she is much less  qualified than me. I feel like my accent cost me the job. Isn’t that illegal? 

A: What you experienced likely violated the California Fair Employment and  Housing Act (“FEHA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which make it an  unlawful employment practice to refuse to hire, employ or promote someone because of  that person’s race, national origin or ancestry, among other classifications.

The courts have made clear that basing hiring or promotion decisions on a person’s  accent may support a finding of employment discrimination on account of race, national origin or ancestry. That would appear to be what happened in your situation, where your  interviewer specifically noted your accent in the interview as a reason not to hire you, and  then the company hired a less-qualified person of a different race, national origin and  ancestry.

It’s curious that the interviewer specifically noted that he personally does not  harbor ill feelings towards Filipinos, and that it is the customers who are instead  prejudiced against Filipinos. But this does not excuse the discriminatory conduct. While  the discrimination laws make exceptions for seemingly discriminatory decisions otherwise  based on what’s called a bona fide occupational qualification, simply catering to  customers’ biases and prejudices do not fall under that exception.

Instead, the anti-discrimination laws and the cases brought under them make clear  that employers may not segregate employees of a particular national origin from  customers. By choosing not to hire you for the manager position due to their customers’  preference that Filipino employees be limited to caregiver positions, and excluded from  managerial positions, it seems your company violated protections against discrimination  based on race, national origin and ancestry.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential  and at no cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than  25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and  consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, selected  as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine for 11 years, and is a past Presidential Awardee for  Outstanding Filipino Overseas.] 

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