How do I tell my employee that he should take English lessons without having a problem with HR? This is part of his yearly appraisal.

Posted 02-05-2013

Ann Kiernan replies:

I cannot tell from your question whether your employee has a foreign accent or whether he is not fluent in English, so let’s look at both situations. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employment decision based on foreign accent is legal only if the worker’s accent “materially interferes with the ability to perform job duties”. For instance, in Fragante v. City & County of Honolulu, 888 F.2d 591, 597-98 (9th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 494 U.S. 1081 (1990), the court found that the employer lawfully refused to hire an man with a pronounced Filipino accent for a position requiring constant phone communication with the public. The evidence showed that the applicant’s heavy accent made him very difficult to understand over the telephone. If this is the case with your employee, you could suggest accent reduction classes, available at many community colleges, to help him improve his pronunciation in the sounds and the rhythm of American English speech.

On English fluency, EEOC advises that employer can require an employee to be fluent in English only if that is required for the effective performance of the position. For example, an employee who is sufficiently fluent in spoken English to qualify as a cashier at a fast food restaurant may lack the written English skills to be a manager at the same restaurant, responsible for copious paperwork.

So, if your employee’s English skills are OK for his current job, but inadequate for the next position on the career ladder, I think it would be appropriate mentoring for you to advise the employee about that, and encourage him to further his education in order to become eligible for promotion.


Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.