I have been working in the US for over 10 years. My accent isn't thick anymore and people don't have a hard time understanding me. My level of English is fluent at this point.

In all my jobs, I feel like at least 30% of my professional interactions have involved the consistent mocking of my accent by colleagues.

On a professional standpoint: when a person mocks me while I speak, it robs me of the opportunity to do my job. Example, I am in a meeting, talking about what I am paid to talk about and I am interrupted. This interruption isn't one which brings value to the company whatsoever, and whatever I was talking about is finished. I then have to watch an audience laughing at my expense. I pack and I leave. It affects my image, my ability to perform and grow.

I have been sat and talked to by bosses or HR because of the way I was setting the boundaries about my accent throughout the years. My initial reactions were confrontational, cold and blunt. I was advised to let imitations of accents slide and not to pay attention to them.

I have learned to make everyone (but me) happy with a casual "let it slide" attitude. The consensus being that I shouldn't let a person who likes to make fun of accents know that it bothers me because it will only make the person who makes fun of accents want to do it more. And overall, being bothered by accent mocking is an unnecessary overreaction because the mocking is not meant to be harmful.

I am having this issue again in my new role. It's been 13 months at this point. My senior colleague likes to repeat what I say with an imitation of my accent. It has escalated with some addition of mockery of my voice with high pitched whiny "gnagnagnagna", and faces and postures. I see other people joining in at this point. I really feel this is getting out of control. I have made clear I found his behavior unprofessional and that I wanted the behavior to stop. Nothing does. Colleagues I know from previous roles in the company and with whom I used to have professional relations based on mutual respect and trust, have now joined my senior in making jokes and comments about my origins.

I have talked to my boss who wants me to resolve on my own by getting through to my colleague. Boss explained mocking to me as a way to be friendly and that it wasn't meant to hurt or humiliate. Note that my colleague never does it front of our boss and that I am the only one my colleague makes fun of out of us 2 juniors in the team.

How would you proceed to ask a colleague to stop once and for all, if you were in my situation? To foreigners specifically, how do you deal with reaching a comfortable level of acceptance of the consensus that accents mocking is harmless fun when you don't think it is funny at all?

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    Related: workplace.stackexchange.com/q/47163/325 Dec 16, 2016 at 16:43
  • The reason why I didn't answer as comments came is because I wanted to give the opportunity for people to give their feedback and raise their questions. I also haven't had a lot of free time this week to dive in this. @Kilisi, my accent is so light that people can't tell my origin unless they know people from my country. One doesn't lose 100% and losing an accent isn't a concern of mine. My concern is to learn to deal with the people who can't go past. Which I can heartedly say that after being in the situation averages at 30%. Dec 17, 2016 at 23:50
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Dec 18, 2016 at 20:10

5 Answers 5


How do I say this... an HR department that tells you to "suck it up" when you complain of workplace harassment is an HR department that is seriously not doing its job, on a level where "not doing its job" seems like a gross understatement. It's like saying that Boeing designed a plane with a "wings fall off" button and saying that the engineers did "not do their job". HR departments are not there to help you, they are there to avoid lawsuits and, to a lesser extent, dispense some of the benefits that a company wants to use to catch/keep you as an employee. What they are doing to you in turning a blind eye to the issue is inviting a lawsuit, not avoiding one.

If you live in the US this is practically the dictionary definition of workplace harassment:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

The employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages. If the supervisor's harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

Any reasonable person would find ongoing mocking of your accent intimidating or hostile and "telling you to suck it up" is not even remotely close to what any judge worth his salt is going to rule is an attempt to "reasonably [try] to prevent".

My advice here: if you really want/need this particular, exact job, go back to HR and raise a stink. Use the verbiage of the EEOC if you need to (heck, print the thing out and bring it in if you want): perhaps the legalese will make them realize that this is not a "oh, this guy gets so disjointed blah blah blah" issue but an actual legal issue where they could be sued and lose a lot of money. At the same time, either way I would polish up that resume and look for a different job, if for no other reason than that nobody ought to be treated to a hostile work environment.

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    Best answer by far. This is a textbook hostile work environment scenario and US law provides very specific protections against this sort of behavior. Document the cases for a few weeks and take the documentation to HR along with a written complaint. Give date, time, and description for each incident. If HR does not immediately put a stop to it, it's certain that the only way to fix the problem is to find another job, and you would be within your rights to file a lawsuit against the company.
    – Roger
    Dec 16, 2016 at 20:00
  • Good advice but sadly even the use of the correct terms ("hostile workplace", "official complaint", "harassment") may not be enough to spur an HR team this incompetent into action.
    – Lilienthal
    Dec 17, 2016 at 10:13
  • If HR won't be spurred into action, then an employment lawyer might be required. Dec 17, 2016 at 13:46
  • I feel that if I am unable to reach out to my colleague in a meaningful way, I will have to reconsider this career opportunity. Reason being that I am not an employee of the company but a contractor which makes the HR relations different. My boss doesn't have the same interest in my professional growth and welfare as my colleague because I am not part of the company. While mocking my accent was bad enough, making demeaning imitations of my voice/posture/face/person as a way to interrupt any professional encounter has been clearly put by my agency rep as harassment. Dec 18, 2016 at 0:13
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    It's too bad that you may have to move on, but please be advised that contractors are not exempt from harassment laws. Dec 18, 2016 at 2:35

If this was friendly banter then it would stop the second you said it was making you uncomfortable.

Unfortunately the fact that the only other answer is a heavily downvoted one shows that there are no easy answers to this. Telling someone they should just rise above bullying is sound advice but ultimately not a resolution. If the problem is spreading then it's unlikely to go away on it's own for a while, if ever.

Really this is something I'd expect your boss to want to do something about, especially if it's affecting productivity, but it could be that they don't want to risk upsetting the senior colleague. If your boss is unwilling or unable to act and HR won't do anything then there's not a lot else that can be done. You could try asking someone else maybe at a lower level to your boss but whom your colleague respects to advocate on your behalf, but without the threat of being fired the best you could hope for is that it is made socially awkward for your colleague to mock your accent.

If it wasn't for the fact that you've faced this elsewhere I'd be tempted to suggest you look for another job. I've never experienced a valued member of any team I've been a part of to be mocked like this, not even juniors, though I've no doubt it does happen.

I'm sorry I can't give you anything more concrete. Like I said, there are no easy answers to problems like this. Your main options essentially boil down to either changing yourself to rise above it, changing your colleague/working environment to stop the behaviour, or changing your job. It sounds like you've tried the first option and weren't satisfied with the results, and are trying to do the second option but are encountering resistence from your boss/HR. That leaves the third option. Water finds its own level - there are jobs out there which will value your contribution to the team and won't engage in continued behaviour they know upsets you.

  • There is one thing I know, this colleague is not liked. He has made some jokes and comments front of people who now just leave when he shows up. Some people are also extremely aggressive with him to shut him up which works but I can tell people just don't enjoy having to do that to be heard. He is a ticking HR bomb... Dec 18, 2016 at 0:17

Have you communicated this issue directly to your coworkers?

It is safe to say management and HR have not communicated with these coworkers the negativity that is occurring from their behavior. It is better to communicate these types of issues directly with the coworker (preferably not in a public setting where others are around), before taking it to management or HR.

A slightly extreme example of what can be said:

So you know, every time you mock my accent, it is equivalent of saying to me that all the time and effort I put into learning English was worthless. That in turn is like saying that you think I am worthless.

Be sure to state how you are interpreting what they are communicating by mocking you. Also avoid saying it with anger or strong emotions if possible. If you have good coworkers that would be the end of it, since they would understand that people have red lines that one does not cross. However, this may not work in your situation since it is already rampant.

Contagious behavior

When one person exhibits a behavior or does something, and others notice that they were not stopped or experienced any negative response they are much more likely to do it themselves. In your case as one coworker started to joke your voice and accent and neither you nor management shut them down, that signaled to other coworkers that mocking you was acceptable behavior. As such it is going to be very difficult to put the boundaries down now. You will likely run into your coworkers stating things like:

Why are you getting offended by this now?

They will think that it clearly did not bother you that much since you allowed it to go on for so long.

Working at a place where you feel valued

Do you really want to work at a place where your coworkers mock you? Keep your eyes open for opportunities on other projects and/or job opportunities in other companies. Having a clean slate with new coworkers will make it much easier to set boundaries early if they start to probe them.


I have been bullied in my childhood, I know how much it sucks to feel like that.

I have lived in the US for 7 years, I believe to have a strong accent (I know because people always ask where I'm from. And there are some words I still have a hard time pronouncing, so I have to repeat them 3 times till people get what I'm saying). Of course I have noticed improvements - meaning fewer people asking. And most of the time I am not made aware of my accent by others.

I have worked in customer service at a gym, so not the most professional or typical setting of all, but definitely plenty of people interaction. I have never experienced severe harassment or bullying regarding my accent, especially not in a way that is interrupting or unprofessional.

I totally wonder why our experiences as immigrants are so vastly different. I am white, German accent, lived in Michigan, and recently moved to California. Always in suburban areas. And I mention this not only because I'm curious about the specifics or your situation, but mostly to see how it compares, and if any of those parameters might cause our situations to be so different.

The only thing I've noticed about people from the country is that they are often not used to hearing accents, and therefore have an even harder time understanding me. Though I can't imagine you'd be in the middle of nowhere.

I suppose you could move to an area that's more tolerant, but I can't imagine we'd have such a different experience because we live in a different regions of the US.

I hope that none of the unchangeable parameters have much to do with it, especially the part about being white...

My experience has been that people are (annoyingly) curious about my origins and love to share what their experiences with my former country are, or where their relatives live, and if it's anywhere near where I grew up. (The worst one is: "Have you been to this German restaurant in town yet?") While I am frustrated to have these conversations for the 100th time, I do see it positively - openness, curiosity, politeness - very unique to American culture. So I do, in a way, appreciate it.

From time to time there will be jokes about my accent. And I laugh at these, because they are funny! I like to hear people making an impression of my accent, it's hilarious! Often people are actually too shy to let me hear their imitation though, it takes some convincing...

And I can laugh at it, because the fact that I talk different from everybody else is comic and amusing. I don't appear out of place until I open my mouth. Because culturally I don't act different, I don't dress different. At least I like to think so, but it's tricky to have an accurate, objective picture of oneself.

So my questions for you to think about are:

  • Is your self perception in check?

Is your accent really not as strong as you think? Is it really 30% of the time that people make fun of you or does it happen for 10 minutes out of every work year (which has about 160,000 minutes. So 10 minutes of poking fun at you is like not even 1% - especially considering that the first 159,990 minutes were open, welcoming, friendly, and everything)

  • Is your sense of humor in check?

Are they really being mean? Or is it really kind of funny? I don't recommend letting it slide, I recommend joining in the fun. Sometimes your accent might be the first and only thing on people's minds when they meet you, but they're too polite to say anything. If you break the ice in that manner (making a situational joke about having an accent or being a foreigner) it may be easier for both of you.

  • Are you culturally integrated and assimilated?

I feel that my accent is only that: An accent to who I am. It doesn't completely describe me. I am American, I act American, I live and breathe 'murican. I have embraced and adopted the culture. So I think because of that I don't come across like I just got off the boat, in spite of my accent. How to integrate yourself culturally is a whole nother question to tackle, that's not actually as easy as it seems - especially if the countries appear to have similar cultures.

  • Could it be a regional, or circumstantial problem?

I doubt this, but maybe you have to move. You can't turn white and you can't turn European. If I am being too ignorant of race here and it's an issue at play, I truly apologize. I can't offer any helpful advice if that's the actual problem. Which makes me feel bad for America :(

So, excluding racial issues, my solutions are all about changing yourself, changing your perceptions and changing your expectations.

Finally, to give you a palpable answer that you can take immediate action on:

  • Reduce your accent

When I first got here, I have used a program "Accent Reduction Made Easy" by Jane Wellborn. Great program with audio drills that can help you master the most difficult phonemes. I can really recommend this program, revisiting it even after 7 years is still helpful.

Edit 1: I just re-read your post again. And the severity of which you describe it is baffling to me. As the currently most upvoted comment says: It's hard to believe that such a place exists.

I do feel badly for your experience, and clearly this is getting to you. And I'm sure it's hard.

But it does bring me back to self-perception, and generally perception, which can actually have cultural differences... What are they seeing and experiencing, what are you seeing and experiencing, what are both of you missing?

Edit 2:

The currently most downvoted answer is actually very important. Yes, bullying is bad, and yes telling you to just suck it up is bad. But there's more to it than that, and it's not easy, either. It comes down to self-confidence. Why are you worried about a joke during a presentation ruining your image and compromising your ability to do your job? What would a highschool teacher do every time this happened to them? Why are you worried about your "image" in the first place? Maybe, ultimately, you have to become aware of your own self worth and develop a healthier self confidence. I have my fair share of those issues to work on, too, so I know it's difficult. But not impossible! We are adaptable, and with enough practice you can master anything. Psychotherapy can probably help with this. I said "healthy" self confidence, because this is a mental health issue.

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    I think this is a good constructive answer. No matter how reprehensible, unkind, and unprofessional this mockery is, it undeniably indicates an accent that is at best distracting; so even if there were no harassment, it would still be a good idea to work to reduce it.
    – peterG
    Dec 16, 2016 at 17:24
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    I must disagree with the quality of this answer. It is mostly questions and sympathizing and it is quite too long for that.
    – user30031
    Dec 17, 2016 at 4:11
  • You should try living in my home of New York City or even visiting. We have New Yorkers from all parts of the world, everybody speaks with some kind of accent and nobody gives a shit what accent you have. Sadly, we have homeless people of all ethnicities and religions. Having said that, the non-native New Yorkers outnumber the native New Yorkers and often enough, the non-native New Yorkers are more fanatical New Yorkers than the native New Yorkers are. We should because damn it, we made this City what it is today :) Dec 17, 2016 at 4:47
  • Having said that, if you have done an effective job of ignoring the mockery, you really don't need to suck it up. Suppose a homeless type screams at me that I am an S.O.B. because I didn't give him a quarter. If I don't give a shit about what he said - which I don't, I don't have to suck it up to what I don't give a shit about, do I? Mind over matter. I don't mind, he doesn't matter. His words flew into the wind. And I win since I still have that quarter in my pocket. If you have a strong sense about who you are and you like yourself as you are, throwing you off your balance is super hard. Dec 17, 2016 at 5:00
  • @DoritoStyle yea i was thinking that it has many questions and i was going to preface that :D but i was content with all the points. Hopefully it helps the OP and he'll find answers to these questions that are true for him. Dec 17, 2016 at 5:18

You let their mockery of your accent get to your head, and you complain that your head is ringing with their mockery? Letting stupid things get to your head was stupid in the first place, because you knew in advance what was going to happen and how you'd react to it. Which is pretty poorly. And when you react poorly every time, it becomes a pattern of self-defeating behavior. I learned long ago that nothing good for me comes out of taking insult and mockery personally. Not least because taking things personally interferes with my ability to think things through and react effectively to what's happening. You can't use your head if your first reaction is to lose your head.

Lashing out won't get you anywhere. In fact, the more perceptible the reaction from you, the more encouraging it is to those who are tormenting you with their mockery. You and them are in a feedback loop that can end with you losing it and losing your job. This is a game you can only win by refusing to get into it, and if you are already in that game, to get out of that game immediately. Because that's the only way you're breaking out of that feedback loop. You are a junior, so the stakes are most likely a lot higher for you than for them. If anyone is going to lose their job over this, it's more likely you than them. As a junior, you are expendable and a dime a dozen. You may be a foreigner but you are compounding it by reacting like an outsider and in most closed environments, outsiders are on the outside looking in. At best. Closed environments are not usually merciful to outsiders.

You are going to have to ignore (1) this mockery, and you will have to work out a way to ignore this mockery that works for you (2). If you get to senior level or to managerial level, this mockery will most likely die on its own. In the meantime, you can escalate to HR and complain that this mockery is creating a hostile environment and interfering with you doing the kind of job you want to do for the company, and see how things shake out. Note that if you have an established track record of reacting poorly to the mockery at your workplace, that track record will most likely be used against you by those who are mocking your accent - Reacting poorly has a way of mucking up the waters and blur the line between you and those who are tormenting you with their mockery of your accent. And when you blur the line, relief is harder to get because you are not so innocent a party any more (3).

(1) When I say "ignore", it's "ignore" as "I don't mind and you don't matter" ignore. If you are still very conscious of the mockery, then you are not ignoring - you are only pretending to ignore. And pretending to ignore fools no one including you.

(2) In my case, I have an extremely strong sense of self-worth - I genuinely like myself as I am, despite my flaws and shortcomings, which I freely admit to. This sense of self-worth is the cornerstone of my sense of self-confidence. And I can tell you that a self-confident me is almost impossible to throw off balance let alone beat. I've had everything including the kitchen sink thrown at me over the years and so far, so good. The world does not change until you change yourself and you don't change yourself until you change the way you look at yourself. Because when you change the way you look at yourself, you change the way you look at the world.

(3) Remember the phrase "credibility of the witness" If you lash out or otherwise react poorly, you will most probably find when HR investigates, that the fact you lashed out or otherwise reacted poorly will be used to undermine your credibility and by extension, the credibility of your complaint. In which case, you will be much less likely to get the relief you want.


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