Opinion: Do you speak American?

BOSTON — When a blond French management consultant, based in Chicago, meets with potential American clients, everything seems to be going well. She is a senior partner in a global consulting firm, with 15 years of experience in coaching business executives, and she has lived in the U.S. for a decade. Yet, after she begins speaking, some executives have decided on the spot not to hire her.

“They come right out and say, it is my accent,” she said.

Discrimination against workers who speak accented English is one of the biggest issues companies face. The consultant, who insisted that her name and her company’s name not be published, said even some colleagues have told her that she could not work on certain projects because they needed someone with an American accent.

“My [French] accent has never been an asset here,” she said. “In the Midwest and Texas, those places, especially, a foreign accent is not welcome.”

In some ways, displaying prejudice against a foreign accent is no different now than refusing to be served by a black retail clerk was in the 1960s, or refusing to buy a car from a saleswoman in the 1970s. Before the Civil Rights movement, many stores allowed blacks to work only in storerooms and back offices, not with the public because they feared white customers would complain or shop elsewhere. Car dealers often kept women confined to secretarial work because they thought male buyers would not listen to them.

It’s been more than 45 years since the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination against workers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Accents are closely connected to national origin, and workers in the U.S. are protected by the law as long as their accents do not materially interfere with their work.

The French consultant does have a pronounced accent that is easier to understand in person than on a cell phone because she speaks very quickly. But her English is fluent. Her firm clearly does not object to her accent or it would not have made her a senior partner. In fact, global companies highly value multilingual employees. They are the jet-setting elite who enable businesses to operate worldwide.

But catering to customers’ preferences for Americans could amount to discrimination if it limits the career opportunities, pay or promotions of the employees, according to Garry Mathiason, a senior partner with the employment law firm of Littler Mendelson in San Francisco.

The French consultant has not complained to her company because she said the exclusion is an unquestioned way of operating at the firm. But it should be questioned. The U.S. has more global businesses than any other country, and it is one reason why English has become the lingua franca of globalization. As English spreads, almost everyone who speaks it develops a distinctive accent that carries over from their primary language, meaning there are thousands of different types of accented English. It is not fair to use accent as an excuse to create a second class of employees.

In the 50 years that U.S. companies have been engaged in actively trying to rid their organizations of institutional discrimination, they have learned that creating an even playing field for employees is critical to that success. To keep a team of accented employees sidelined undermines that effort.

Just a few years ago, media outlets — including CNN, which actively spreads American around the world through its channels — denounced the offshoring of customer service because it was hard to understand the accents of the agents. Yet, this criticism seemed hypocritical. They used American as a vehicle for profit and then criticized those who also sought to profit from it.

Most ordinary Americans come into contact with foreign accents mainly through foreign call service centers. And it is frequently a struggle to communicate. I recently spoke to an operator in the Philippines about a malfunctioning cell phone.

Trying to understand his English required me to spend twice as long on the phone as I would have with an American operator. He said "tow" instead of "two," which obfuscated the numerical codes he was telling me to enter. The process was very frustrating, and I corrected his pronunciation along the way. But, after a painstaking session, he got the phone to work and made us both happy.

This agent’s pronunciation of English was materially relevant to his job, and it was borderline. But he was trying very hard to succeed, and I needed him to succeed. Because communication is so quick these days, we expect the spoken word to be just as efficient. Yet, paradoxically, our complex and far-flung economy requires more patience to communicate. Despite our zippy new gadgets, we have to slow down, listen carefully, ask people to repeat themselves, and to repeat ourselves. Communication goes two ways, and globalization requires us to give one another a fair chance.

Business professors Jonathan Whitaker, M.S. Krishnan and Claes Fornell conducted a study of 150 firms that had used outsourcing from 1998 to 2006. They found that customer satisfaction dropped whether their customer service was outsourced domestically or overseas. That’s bad news for companies generally, but it indicates that accent is not the core issue. Their article, published in the “MIT Sloan Management Review,” said the real issue in client satisfaction is whether the worker is able to accomplish the task, to solve the customer’s problem.

Companies should enable their workers, no matter what accents they have, to actually find solutions for clients, not turn employees into drones that serve as little more than human answering machines.

Offshoring is not going away. India continues to be a hotspot, and its market share is going to be challenged by the “rising geographies” of Central and South America, according to the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals.

It behooves Americans to spend more time trying to understand international accents because they are a growing part of the commercial landscape.

It’s understandable that many Americans might feel especially annoyed by offshoring when unemployment hovers close to 10 percent. Yet, most Americans could not survive on jobs that often pay below $3 an hour, or even $3 per day. The upside of becoming more familiar with foreign accents and languages is that American workers will have greater opportunities to work across many continents, like the French consultant has.

If we want to be able to function and thrive in other countries without people discriminating against us, we have to help others do the same. We should see it as an opportunity, not a burden.