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By Marcus Hoy
A Danish company that denied a telesales job to an applicant with a Russian accent has been ordered by the nation's Equal Treatment Board to pay her compensation of 25,000 kroner ($4,000 dollars) for national origin discrimination (Ruling 9948).
An important feature of the case was that the company did not listen to the woman's voice, choosing instead to reject her application by email after she informed them that she spoke with an accent. In an Oct. 31 statement provided to Bloomberg BNA, Norrbom Vinding attorney Yvonne Frederiksen said that under most circumstances, an understandable accent should not be legitimate grounds for discrimination.
The telesales job required successful applicants to speak and write fluent Danish. Following her application, the woman received an email from the company noting her foreign name and enquiring if she spoke with a Russian accent. The woman replied that she spoke fluent Danish but with a slight accent. In its next email, the company rejected her application.
The woman then complained to the Equal Treatment Board, saying that she had lived in Denmark for 10 years, spoke fluent Danish, and had worked previously as a hotel receptionist dealing with guests on the phone and in person without encountering language barriers.
The board held that the company had not demonstrated that the woman's lack of language skills had prevented her from performing the tasks required. While an employer may decline to employ a jobseeker whose language skills are not adequate, the board found that discrimination had clearly occurred in this case as the company had not heard the woman speak. Generally, the board said, an understandable accent should not be legal grounds for rejecting a job application.
“If the reason for requiring no accent or a minimal accent is based on a legitimate aim and the requirement is proportionate, then legal grounds may exist to deny a position,” Frederiksen told Bloomberg BNA. “It should, however, be stressed that it would be difficult for an employer to require an employee to speak with no accent at all.”
Frederiksen added that she could envision circumstances where an applicant's “understandable” but strong accent could be grounds to refuse a position. This was confirmed, she said, in a February 2010 Supreme Court ruling (U.2010.1415H) that a Dutch national had been legitimately denied a telesales position due to a strong accent. In that case, the court ruled that the employee did not meet language requirements related to new telesales tasks and therefore the dismissal had a legitimate aim.
“In my opinion, denying employment due to a requirement that the employee may not speak with an accent will only be acceptable in a very limited number of situations,” Frederiksen said. “For example, in the teaching profession it may be important to speak Danish without an accent.”
“For companies, it is necessary to carefully consider the reason for requiring a candidate to speak the native language at a certain level without a strong accent,” she said. “It will certainly be difficult to prove that a refusal to hire an employee was based on a legitimate aim if the employer did not actually hear the candidate speak.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Marcus Hoy in Copenhagen at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at email@example.com
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