National Origin Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer to harass an employee or take adverse action against him or her because of the employee’s birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics common to a specific national origin or ethnic group. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 also protects employees from discrimination based on national origin or citizenship status.

Sometimes, national origin discrimination overlaps with race or religious discrimination. Title VII applies to employers with fifteen or more employees, and the IRCA applies to employers with three or more employees. Many states have laws which expand anti-discrimination protections to cover smaller employers than Title VII. Please see our chart of Information by State for more detailed information.

Harassment can include any behavior that targets an employee because of his or her national origin – offensive jokes, the use of ethnic slurs, insensitive statements stereotyping Mexicans, Chinese, Arabs, etc. – as long as the behavior is frequent or severe enough to materially impact the conditions of employment. That is to say, the behavior must create a work environment that is so hostile, offensive, or abusive that it interferes with an employee’s ability to perform his or her job. Offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not particularly serious generally do not rise to the level of “harassment.”

Harassment does not have to take place for national origin discrimination to exist, however. Any action that differentiates in the terms or conditions of employment on the basis of national origin may constitute discrimination. This includes prejudicial hiring practices, paying employees unequally, failing to promote qualified employees, or instituting policies that tend to disadvantage certain employees.

Title VII’s prohibition of national origin discrimination includes prejudicial treatment based on:

Accent/Language: National origin discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of accent, manner of speaking, or language fluency. It also applies to rules stating that employees be required to speak only English in the workplace. Rules that require employees to speak English exclusively in the workplace may be a violation of Title VII unless the employer can illustrate that the rule is compulsory for conducting business. Employers that decide that such a rule is necessary must inform employees when the employees are required to speak English and the consequences for violating the rule.

Physical or Cultural Traits and Clothing: Title VII also prohibits discrimination based on physical traits or clothing associated with a certain region, ethnicity, or country of origin. For example, if you are a Muslim woman mocked for wearing a headscarf, or an Orthodox Jew told that you can only meet with clients if you shave your beard. Customer preference can never be used as a justification for discriminatory treatment.

Multilingualism: National origin discrimination may include requiring multilingual employees to perform more work than unilingual colleagues without additional compensation.

Citizenship: The EEO statutes protect all employees who work in the United States for covered employers, regardless of citizenship status or work authorization. In addition, discrimination based on citizenship violates Title VII's prohibition on national origin discrimination if it has the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin.

Association with a protected individual: National origin discrimination includes discrimination based on an individual's association with someone of a national origin group. Thus, for example, it would be unlawful to discriminate against an individual because he is married to a Mexican woman.

Perceived national or ethnic origin: Individuals are also protected from discrimination based on perceived national origin, even if that perception is incorrect. For example, if you’re a Jordanian man not hired because the administrator believed you were Iraqi.

Discrimination Frequently Asked Questions