What is National Origin?

National origin refers to the country a person was born in or where their ancestors lived. National origin discrimination is when an individual is mistreated because of their country of origin, culture, ancestry, linguistic characteristics, accent, or physical appearance. A “national origin group” is a group of people sharing a common language, culture, ancestry, and/or other similar social characteristics. National origin discrimination also includes discrimination due to:

  • Marriage to or association with persons of a national origin group.
  • Membership in or association with ethnic promotion groups.
  • Attendance or participation in churches, schools, mosques, or temples associated with a national origin group.
  • Physical appearance or a name associated with a particular nationality.

Regardless of whether a job applicant or employee is Mexican, Filipino, Russian, American Indian, Iranian, or any other nationality, they have a right to equal access to employment because it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of national origin under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a law that applies to employers who have 15 employees or more, and it bars discrimination due to an individual's ancestry, birthplace, linguistic characteristics (common to a specific group), culture, or accent. Title VII prohibits offensive conduct, such as ethnic slurs, that create a hostile work environment based upon national origin.

Charges of discrimination based on national origin are often accompanied by charges of “harassment.” Aside from Title VII,  the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is another federal law that protects individuals from employment discrimination due to citizenship or immigration status, and it also bars document abuse discrimination, which happens when employers ask for more or different documents than are needed to verify employment identity and eligibility or when they reject reasonably genuine-looking papers altogether.

Employers can prefer people of one nationality to another, but this is only allowed when nationality is what is known as a "bona fide occupational qualification" for the position, meaning that being of a certain nationality is necessary to be qualified for the job. For instance, being Latino might be a bona fide occupational qualification for a part in a film involving a Cuban family. That said, instances when preferences for a particular nationality are acceptable, are quite rare. An employer also can't refuse to hire a potential employee  because of their manner of speech or accent, but whether the denial is unlawful depends on the person’s qualifications, the nature of the position, and whether the employee's manner of speaking or accent harmed, or would harm, job performance.

The Department of Justice's Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC) is tasked with investigating accusations of workplace discrimination pertaining to one's nationality in workplaces with between four and 14 employees, while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates charges of discrimination related to one's nationality in workplaces with 15 employees or more.

Victims of national origin discrimination at workplaces with four to 14 employees can recover job offers, back pay, and reinstatement. Victims of nationality discrimination in workplaces with 15 employees or more can receive compensation that includes hiring, back pay, front pay, reinstatement, promotion, compensatory damages (emotional pain and suffering), punitive damages (damages to punish the employer), and other actions that will make an individual "whole" (returning them to the condition that they would have been in if there were no discrimination), as well as remedies that may also include payment of attorneys' fees, expert witness fees, and court costs.

To protect your rights under the law, contacting an attorney or a federal or state administrative agency soon after discrimination is suspected is recommended. For workplaces employing four to 14 employees, one must file charges with the OSC within 180 days from when the alleged violation occurred, while in the case of workplaces with 15 employees or more, all laws enforced by the EEOC require filing charges with the EEOC (or a cooperating state agency) prior to a lawsuit being brought to court.

Employers sometimes make hiring, firing, promotion, and compensation decisions due to an employee's national origin, which is illegal under federal law, as well as the laws of many states. Employees who believe that their national origin played a negative role in their employment status can bring a complaint before their state's EEOC, and they may sue their employer if the federal complaint does not bring a solution.

Employers are barred by law from deliberate discrimination and from discriminating through neutral policies that still have discriminatory effects. Discrimination based on national origins happens at work if an employer makes an employment-related decision based on a job applicant or employee's culture, country of origin, accent, assumed ethnicity, or actual ethnicity.

There are three kinds of national origin discrimination that are barred by law, and they are:

  • Harassment, which constitutes derogatory and offensive remarks about one's ethnicity, national origin, or accent that are harsh enough to make for an offensive or hostile work environment or result in an adverse employment decision against the victim. Employees are protected by law against harassment from co-workers, supervisors, customers, and clients.
  • Discrimination related to citizenship, which involves employers firing, hiring, or recruiting because of one's immigration status or citizenship. Except when stated by law, it is illegal to prohibit non-U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents from being hired.
  • Language requirements, which are rules or tests designed to bar non-English speaking from working for one’s company. An employer can institute an English-only rule if it can be shown that it is needed for the function of the business. If the rule applies to workers during breaks, as well, it may be illegal, and employees must be told when English is required and what the consequences of violating this rule are. Furthermore, employers cannot hire people based on their accent or English ability unless said accent can be shown to interfere with the function of the job in question. Testing for English ability must be done to all applicants equally.

Racial Discrimination at Work

Racial discrimination at work happens when an employer considers an employee's or job applicant’s race when making a negative employment-related decision. There are several forms that racial discrimination can take, and they are:

  • Color discrimination, which occurs when a person's complexion, skin pigmentation, or skin tone is used to determine their suitability for employment.
  • Discrimination involving race-related characteristics. An example of this would be the neutral policy called the "no-beard" policy, which can discriminate disproportionately against African-American men who are more likely than men of other races to suffer from pseudofolliculitis barbae, a skin condition that induces severe shaving bumps.
  • Discriminatory hiring, recruiting, and advancement. An employer must apply job requirements equally and consistently. If a requirement significantly bars people of a particular color or race, it may be unlawful. An example would be requiring certain skills or educational requirements if they are not related to the performance of the job or if they are not necessary for the operation of the business.
  • Requesting pre-employment information that discloses race or has the tendency to disclose race. If members of a race were barred from being hired because of such requests, it may be presumed that such information created an illegal basis for hiring, because posing pre-employment questions about race is considered a form of racial discrimination at work.
  • Segregating employees or isolating members of a race to a physical area or away from contact with the general public.

Similar to national origin discrimination, under California and federal law, adverse employment actions considered to be racial discrimination at work can vary from case to case, whereas workplace racial discrimination can happen to a person who is actually of a certain race, to someone who is simply perceived as a member of a particular race, and even to someone whose spouse or family member(s) is of a certain race or color. Such illegal employer behavior can manifest itself in anything from a supervisor subjecting an employee to unfair write-ups, to decreases in pay, denial of overtime pay, or even termination due to a person or their acquaintance’s race or ethnicity, actual or perceived.

National Origin Discrimination vs. Racial Origin Discrimination

It is common for national origin and race to overlap, and many employees often confuse racial discrimination with national origin discrimination. These may sound similar, it is true, yet federal and California employment laws address both protected classes separately.

National origin refers to a person’s country of origin or ancestral home, whereas race refers to a group of people who have similar and distinct physical characteristics and genetic traits, like skin, hair, and eye color. National origin does not exclusively align with physical characteristics, but many people confuse national origin with race and vice versa. To illustrate this distinction, consider that if a person of Cambodian ancestry were born in Egypt, they would be thought of as “Cambodian,” but their national origin would still be “Egyptian.” So, if a Cambodian living in Nevada suffered discrimination at work because they had the common physical traits of Cambodians, or Asians more generally, they would be confronted by racial discrimination, not national origin discrimination.

Activity constituting national origin discrimination can appear in many forms, and it happens when a job applicant or employee that is from another nation, or is just thought to hail from another nation, faces antagonism from an employer because of their national origin. Such illegal employer actions can include harassment and workplace bullying because of an employee’s nation of birth, to language restrictions or denial of training due to an employee’s distinct accent, to even denying an applicant a job because the hiring manager dislikes the country they are from. National origin discrimination can also happen when an employer treats an employee badly because they are the spouse or associate of a person whose national origin they do not approve of.

Signs of Race and National Origin Discrimination

It is unlawful for your employer to afflict you with adverse employment actions due to your ethnicity, national origin, or race, and you should consider speaking to an experienced employment attorney if you believe you have suffered from any of the following examples of discrimination in the workplace because of your nationality or race:

  • If a company refused to hire you due to your race or nationality
  • If you suffered verbal or physical abuse at work because of your race or nationality
  • If you were threatened with violence due to your race or nationality
  • If you were singled out unfairly with discipline from your employer because of your race or nationality
  • If a negative performance review was given to you due to your race or nationality
  • If you were excluded from project meetings due to your race or nationality
  • If you were refused ongoing training due to your race or nationality
  • If a promotion was denied to you due to your race or nationality
  • If your workload was increased because of your race or nationality
  • If you lost your job because of your race or nationality

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