Discrimination Against Foreign Accents: A Growing Problem

FedEx driver fired for his Russian accent?

SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah truck driver alleges that FedEx fired him because of his Russian accent, even though he offered to appear before corporate higher-ups to demonstrate his English-speaking abilities.

Ismail Aliyev has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Memphis, Tenn.-based shipping company, and the long-haul contractor that employed him and was ordered to do the firing.

And Aliyev's case is just one of many complaints by workers alleging discrimination based on their accents, federal officials said Thursday.

Workplace discrimination complaints based on national origin -- which often involve language ability -- rose by 76 percent from 1997 to 2011, when more than 11,800 complaints were lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC attributes the trend to a more ethnically diverse labor force -- about 45 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. Civil-rights advocates say that workplace environments have grown more hostile in states enacting tough new immigration laws.

"There's definitely a climate of fear that's bad for everybody," said John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU of Utah.

Across the country, workers have won large settlements claiming that they were harassed or reprimanded for speaking in foreign languages or accents.

More: 8 Ways Employers Can Discriminate Against Workers -- Legally

Aliyev worked for GNB Trucking Co. in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Valley. The small business owns and operates FedEx-branded trucks and provides uniformed drivers for FedEx.

Aliyev says that his trouble started months into the job when an Iowa weigh station gave his company a warning -- but not a citation -- for his Russian accent. One of the requirements of holding a commercial driver's license is the ability to communicate.

"I think for a driver, my English is not too bad," said Aliyev, now an independent trucker, who spoke to The Associated Press by cellphone briefly Wednesday while driving in Nebraska.

Aliyev has an accent "but it's very understandable," said Robert H. Wilde, his lawyer. "GNB said that he was an excellent employee and would like to keep him, but it was instructed by FedEx to terminate him."

Wilde said the firing was ordered by a FedEx manager who didn't bother to speak with Aliyev, and that Aliyev offered to fly to FedEx headquarters to show off his language skills but was turned down.

Erin Truxal, a FedEx Ground spokeswoman in Moon Township, Pa., confirmed that Aliyev was employed by the independent contractor GNB Trucking but declined to comment further. A message left at FedEx's corporate headquarters wasn't returned Wednesday.

Aliyev's son said it wasn't the first time the family had experienced discrimination. As Turks in Russia, they were forced to flee in 2005, landing in Utah as political refugees, Elshad Aliyev said.

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"It really does hurt," said Elshad Aliyev, who speaks flawless English. "We lost everything in Russia."

He said that his father can be a little hard to understand on a telephone but "if you would talk to him personally, you could communicate well enough."

GNB Trucking said FedEx controls the hiring and firing of its truck drivers and a host of other business terms. Ben Ishhanov, a manager for the trucking outfit, speculated that Ismail Aliyev had flunked an English test given by a FedEx field office after his hiring.

His son, however, maintains Ismail Aliyev passed that test.

"He was told to write something on a blackboard and read some papers," Elshad Aliyev said.

The GNB manager at first said that he didn't recall Ismail Aliyev or being ordered to fire any truck drivers because of their speaking ability.

"We haven't fired anyone for that," said Ishhanov, speaking with what he said was an Armenian accent. Then he added, "If FedEx told us to fire a driver, we can't do anything about that. Some guys don't know any English. That's the problem."

Ismail Aliyev has held a commercial license since 2009 and was driving without any problems before FedEx ordered his firing in September, his lawyer said.

"FedEx just decided they didn't want to deal with him, or even talk to him," said Wilde, who filed the lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount for lost wages and punitive damages.

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I've read some of the other comments but also remember just a few years ago when a lot of foreign accents were considered to be "charming." Many of them are when the people who have them can be understood, but when we can't understand them, it does become frustrating, even for someone who is not particularly opinionated or prejudiced toward people who've immigrated here.

December 06 2012 at 11:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I just read some of the comments. I have been in this country 45 years to be exact. Went to the University for 6 years. Worked for 41 years. I have a real accent. Let me tell you. If you learn a second language, this is for most people, as an elementary school child, you will not have an accent. If you learn a second language as an adult, most likely you will have an accent the rest of your life. Before coming here I took 3 years English, a lot of grammar, spelling, reading, when it was conversation it was very limited. Of course there are teacher to help you erase the "problem" but they are very, very expensive, unaffordable for me. I worked in a welfare department for 29 years dealing with people, and believe me, they understood me, perfectly. The accent is not a handicapp. Every body have one and it should not be a deterrent to have a job. Have you ever spoke with an scottish? Accent are a fact of life. We need to have an open mind when dealing with it.

December 06 2012 at 9:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My wife and I hosted several high school foreign exchange students, and my Mother-In-Law was a "war-bride" from Europe, so I have quite a bit of experience with "foreign accents".

We discovered that the students had a much heavier accent when they were tired or stressed. We also noticed that accents are "magnified" on the telephone, (even Mother-In-Law's).
We also discovered that one particular high school math teacher's East Texas accent was VERY challenging for one exchange student that had SIX YEARS of English, and was taught in English for four years before becoming an exchange student, (from Spain). (BTW, the exchange students were honor roll students here, being taught in English.)
Even I had to think about what was a "bob war fence" or a "tiota truck" as spoken by an East Texas co-worker, (barbed wire fence, Toyota pick-up).

Accents are 'subjective', and some people have had little or no exposure to accents except through TV and radio, and so, struggle when they do encounter them. I am from the midwest, (not Iowa), and have been told (by a professional linguist) I essentially have no accent... I did have one hotel clerk tell me I had a delightful southern accent when I had to make an emergency call to my boss (at a conference in Phoenix), but that HAD to be 'fluff' (or a veiled insult?) since she knew I was calling from Dallas, TX. (BTW, one of my co-workers was from Phoenix, and she had no noticable accent.)

Our auto mechanic (and his family) were originally from Armenia, and his "air wing Toyota" (Irving Toyota), took us a second or two, but was no problem.

Word choices are another matter.
Anyone know what the "bonnet of a car" is, or a "reel of cotton"?
(Hood of a car, spool of thread in BRITISH English). How about "Ring us up" from a New Zelander's English? (call on the telephone).

My guess is a FedEx clerk noticed a driver had received a warning, and ordered them fired while neglecting to determine what the warning was about.
Error? Mistake? Company policy? With a lawsuit, you can be pretty sure FedEx won't discuss the matter.

IMO, more likely than discrimination, but still could be discrimination.
(And yet, job listing of "good communication skills" is somewhat 'code' for American English speaker...)

December 06 2012 at 5:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Look at it from a the customer's point of view. As a customer I don't like calling for computer tech help or pulling up to a fast food drive through only to get someone I can't understand. If they refuse to get someone I can understand I go somewhere else. I don't mind accents. I just want to be able to understand them. Imagine going to another country and getting a job in a service industry. How long do you think you would last?

December 05 2012 at 6:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Randy's comment

Actually, you don't even have to go to another country...

My wife was hired by the board of directors (all at least bi-lingual) of a Ballet Folklorico Company, in Texas, and didn't speak Spanish (or Tex-Mex, but could understand it), and we were invited to a Taqueira (for dinner) to watch the dancers perform. One of the board members (and my wife?) told me to go order my food and must have thought it would be "interesting" (I don't speak Spanish, but heard the comment 'Norte Americano') when I tried to order at the counter in English ... I did get decent food, but it took a few minutes, and didn't involve English.

IMO, we have done "our" children a disservice to not have them at least familiar with *some* foreign language.
And yet, what would it be? In my profession, I have had co-workers from over a dozen different countries. In a part-time job, another dozen, including Nepal, Somalia, Poland, Netherlands, Honduras, Chile, Japan, China, Viet Nam and the list goes on and on and on.

As for computer tech help, nearly all of them read from a script (is the computer plugged in, are there any lights on, does the screen have anything on it, etc.) whether they are an offshore tech support or not. I've worked on computers for decades, and have yet to find a way to bypass the level 1 and 2 call takers so I can get a "real" answer...

December 06 2012 at 5:56 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"Discrimination Against Foreign Accents: A Growing Problem"..........okay....sure....right. Look liberal idiot obama lovers that wrote this stupid article it's like this......we don't need people to come here to our country and live and expect to work in our work force and then just expect to get some "obama slide by" with half assed English language speaking ability with the inability to communicate effectively with customers or other associates. It was not put up with 100 years ago and it certainly will not be put up with today. This is the USA and we don't need a bunch of liberals who want this country to be a European base run socialist society by tricking us by dusting off old chestnuts like "you are racists" or "are thinking backwards not forward" by thinking like this etc. It's common sense guys....something liberals don't have by simply looking at this whole thing logicaly that if you are a foreigner and you want to come here to better yourself great but before you do or as soon as you get here or get citizenship for sure you should be able to pass a lot of battery of tests and situations and be required to be able to speak good to flawless English. This guy is either somebody who lied on his tests or simply slid through the cracks of the hiring system if there is not already corruption and payoffs in the FedEx offices to just hire any drivers who can spell in english their names or else he just simply didn't want to learn but just enough English and refused to speak better English or learn to speak it more clearly. Learn to speak clear English before joining our workforce. Nuff' said.

December 03 2012 at 5:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

This is the USA IS IT NOT? Speak English

December 03 2012 at 11:28 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

i worked at brandeis medical, an abortion clinic in beverly hills, ca. One receptionist speaks Japanese as a first language. It is difficult to understand her English. This woman gives instructions on how to take an abortion pill in a thick accent. Nelli, tells patients she is a nurse even though she is not. Nelli speaks Armenian as a first language. She too tells women how to take an abortion pill in a thick accent. These patients would then call me, a woman who speaks English with no accent and ask me to explain the process again because they could not understand Nelli or the other receptionist. If you can't speak English in a way English speakers can clearly understand don't be in the American workforce. Just go home and speak your own language.

December 03 2012 at 10:45 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

they need to learn how to speak english the right way

December 03 2012 at 9:31 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Wrell rye ront rike ris rat rall.

December 03 2012 at 8:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

speaking english "good enough" is NOT good enough when most folks can't understand you. i'm tired of accomodating these people who you can barely understand. i don't ask then to repeat themselves but once, then i ask to speak to someone else. i'm not going to try to decipher what they're saying.

December 03 2012 at 7:56 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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