EEOC Issues Guidance on National Origin Discrimination that Applies to Foreign National Employees

EEOC, National Origin DiscriminationThis week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released guidance regarding national origin discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).  The guidance replaces Section 13 of the EEOC’s compliance manual, with a view toward further defining “national origin” and helping employers and employees understand their legal rights and responsibilities. The guidance specifically states that Title VII applies to any worker employed in the United States by a covered employer (employer with more than four employees), regardless of immigration status, as well as any foreign national outside the United States when they apply for U.S.-based employment.

The new guidance defines “national origin” as an individual’s, or his or her ancestors’, place of origin, which can be a country (including the United States), a former country, or a geographic region.  In addition, “national origin” refers to an individual’s national origin group or ethnic group, which it defines as “a group of people sharing a common language, culture, ancestry, race, and/or other social characteristics.”  Discrimination based on national origin group includes discrimination because of a person’s ethnicity (e.g., Hispanic) or physical, linguistic, or cultural traits (e.g., accent or style of dress).  Discrimination based on place of origin or national origin group includes discrimination involving a mere perception of where a person is from (e.g., Middle Eastern or Arab), association with someone of a particular national origin, or citizenship status.  Title VII discrimination can take the form of unfavorable employment decisions based on national origin or harassment so pervasive or severe that it creates a hostile work environment.

In addition to clarifying the meaning of “national origin,” the guidance provides examples based on how actual courts have applied Title VII to specific facts.  For example, the guidance gives as an example of “intersectional” discrimination a Mexican-American woman who, without explanation, was denied a promotion at a company where she successfully worked for 10 years, despite two non-Mexican women and a Mexican man being selected for the same position.  The guidance also provides examples where national origin discrimination overlaps with other protected bases, such as discriminating against people with origins in the Middle East due to a perception that they follow certain religious practices.  Further, the guidance gives examples of real cases where employment decisions and harassment constituted Title VII national origin violations, as well as cases where Title VII violations were not found.  Finally, the guidance applies Title VII national origin principles to trafficking cases, where employers use force, fraud, or coercion to compel labor or exploit workers, and such conduct is directed at an individual or a group of individuals based on national origin.

Employers of foreign national workers should note that individuals with Title VII claims may also have claims under other Federal statutes, including the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).  Form I-9 and the E-Verify program are two areas where discrimination claims could arise under both the INA and Title VII.

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EEOC Continues Focus on Religious and National Origin Discrimination Involving Muslim and Arab Communities

The National Law Review recently published an article by Robert B. Meyer and David L. Woodard of Poyner Spruill LLP, regarding Discrimination:


The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has announced on its website that it continues to focus on what it considers to be ongoing religious and national origin discrimination in the workplace, especially against Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Communities.  The EEOC reports that in the initial months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Commission saw a 250% increase in the number of religion-based charges involving Muslims.  Since that time, the EEOC states that it has continued to track an increase in such charges, as well as those alleging national origin discrimination against those with Middle Eastern background.  While the Commission does not specify how many of those charges were found to have merit, it does report that it has filed nearly 90 lawsuits against employers, many of which involve alleged harassment on the basis of religion and national origin.  Thus, it is apparent that the EEOC is aggressively pursuing investigation and enforcement activities in this area.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants on the basis of religion or national origin.  The harassment of individuals because of their religion or national origin is also prohibited.  Through its interpretations of Title VII, The EEOC has recognized a wide range of actions and conduct that may be potentially unlawful, including: disparate treatment, teasing or insults because of a person’s appearance, customs, language, or accent; requiring employees to speak English in the workplace; disparate treatment, jokes, or insults toward an employee because of the national origin or religion of that person’s spouse; and adverse actions based on perceptions of an employee or applicant’s national origin or religion.

It is important to note that in addition to these prohibitions against discrimination and harassment, Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or applicant, unless doing so would cause an “undue hardship” for the employer.  The EEOC has suggested that reasonable accommodation may include, for example, providing employees with leave to attend religious observances, providing time and/or a place to pray, and permitting employees to wear religious attire in the workplace.  However, the issue of accommodation requires the employer to consider each request for accommodation on a case-by-case basis in order to determine whether accommodation is possible and reasonable under the circumstances.

The EEOC also states that it has “intensified its outreach” to educate employees in this area of the law by issuing fact sheets on immigrant employee rights, employment discrimination based on religion and national origin, and employer responsibilities under Title VII with respect to the employment of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and Sikhs.  These fact sheets provide specific examples of prohibited conduct in the workplace, and also offer instructions on how employees may file charges with the EEOC.  Therefore, and in view of the EEOC’s emphasis on this particular form of discrimination, employers should review carefully these fact sheets as a part of their proactive compliance and training measures.  Employers should also remember that retaliation against anyone who files a charge or otherwise opposes unlawful discrimination is expressly prohibited under Title VII.

© 2012 Poyner Spruill LLP