Like most things in life, it depends on several other factors; their country of origin being the most important. Josh Joel, business attorney, counsel at Stanton Law, states:
“Refusing to hire someone on the basis of their accent can be dangerous territory. Federal law forbids making employment decisions on the basis of national origin, and a foreign accent is a clear reflection of national origin.”
Not hiring someone based on their citizenship or country of origin/birth is illegal as long as they have the appropriate paperwork that permits them to legally work in the US. Denying employment based on English being their second language is also against the law. Did you know that to become an American citizen you do not have to speak any English?
However, you may legally discriminate against someone based on their accent if the applicant was born in the US. If you are hiring for a position that requires verbal communication in English and they have a thick accent you may choose not to hire them based on this. For example, if the candidate has a thick Philadelphian accent and nobody in the office can understand them you can choose not to hire them. Attorney Joel explains:
“The only exception is if the candidate’s accent is so difficult to understand that it will impede them from effectively performing the core functions of the job. Examples, where this may apply, include certain phone-based positions, such as telemarketers. But I strongly suggest that you speak to an employment lawyer before declining a job offer because of an employee’s accent.”
Not all accents are the same, a mild accent is not a legal reason to discriminate against a candidate. Furthermore, rejecting an applicant because they sound different is illegal, especially if they are in a protected class. As clearly expressed by Jon Hyman, an employment attorney, and partner at Wickens Herzer Panza:
“While I’d love to think that ‘Philly’ is a protected class and that I can drink my glass of wooder without fear of discrimination, alas, it is not. But a ‘Black’ accent or ‘gay’ affect … different story.”
Your best course of action during the hiring process is to hire someone based on their ability to do the job, rather than their lack of an accent or affect. This will earn you more respect within the company and give you an efficient and diverse team. It will also keep you out of legal trouble.