Hidden bias: How your accent gets in the way in the workplace

2nd March 2020

More than 200 languages are spoken in Manchester. One of those languages is Spanish. And someone who is a native Spanish speaker and adopted Mancunian is Jorge Ger, a restaurant manager.

Ger thinks no matter how impeccable his English, he’ll never be able to escape discrimination. He tells The Overtake that it’s more likely for a company to hire someone with less experience as long as English is their first language.

He says interviewers’ judgements towards his accent are “instantly noticeable” and it is often the case for employers to tell him they’ve found someone “better suited” for the role but continue to advertise the position. 

After working in customer service his whole life, both in Spain and for four years in the UK, he feels as though much of his rejections come from a preference for a native English speaker. He says: “Because it’s not your mother-tongue you won’t do well, they prefer someone who has less skills but is British.”

Coming from a northern, typically working-class town, and now working in a tapas bar in Manchester, it’s troubling to me to think that a huge group of people, my friends and co-workers, might find their accent holds them back in the workplace. 

I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement

Attitudes to typical English accents have changed very little over the last 50 years, a survey by Accent Bias Britain has found. The survey showed that although the difference in ratings of all accents are reducing in general, there is still a clear indication that ‘standard’ varieties such as Received Pronunciation (RP) are perceived as hierarchically better than non-standard, typically working-class varieties. 

Such biases have huge social and professional implications. British-born American foreign affairs specialist Fiona Hill recently shared that her preference for America is partly related to the country’s lack of accent-prejudice. In her opening statement at President Trump’s impeachment hearing, Hill said: “I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.” Even in this decade, Labour MP Angela Rayner has received various comments about her “working-class”, northern accent which has been used to criticise her and dispute her intelligence and political viability.  

Among the unfavourable accents were multicultural London English, northern English and English spoken with a foreign accent. Less-privileged groups such as working-class and ethnic minorities are subject to prejudice – whether that be subconscious or conscious – in both social and professional contexts. 

My accent, background and status landed me in a position where I wasn’t always taken seriously in the workplace

Some 80% of employers admit to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents, research by law firm Peninsular found, and another study found first-generation migrants speaking with foreign accents were seen as less employable in customer-facing roles than American English and British English. 

Jess Evans, a working-class journalist from Liverpool, thinks this is true for offices too.

“I was often the only working-class woman in the magazine offices I worked in. My accent, background and status landed me in a position where I wasn’t always taken seriously in the workplace,” she says.

“When I worked at a glossy fashion magazine I was asked to tone down my northern accent when I was on camera interviewing people, because ‘it wasn’t on brand’ for their middle to upper-class audience. At another publication, working on the fashion desk, my line manager made comments about how ‘people who speak like you’ don’t really know much about fashion, and how it surprised him that I had ‘ended up’ in the industry.”

You could reject an applicant on the basis that their voice isn’t clear (maybe for a client-facing job), but really, it’s because you don’t think customers will like their accent

She was also told she wasn’t “on brand” in another magazine and was let go as a result of it. She noted that there was no backlash in any of these cases as, at 22, she thought she’d be “fighting a losing battle”. Evans is now back up north and running a consulting business with the aim to get more working-class people who aren’t in the elite or come from a privileged background, into journalism. 

Accent biases are strange because we often don’t acknowledge that we have them. We place the values we associate with a particular accent on the people who use it.  Sociolinguistic researcher at the University of Roehampton Annabelle Mooney, says: “There is a widespread idea that the language people speak is somehow indicative of their character.” So, if you think of the scouse accent, or another working-class accent such as brummie, as unintelligent and uneducated, you ultimately think that about the people who speak with that accent, to a large or small degree. This means that for foreign speakers of English, their accent may be used to question their credibility and intelligence. 

Professor Rob Drummond of The Accentism Project says: “[Accent bias] can be used as a proxy for other forms of discrimination. You could reject an applicant on the basis that their voice isn’t clear (maybe for a client-facing job), but really, it’s because you don’t think customers will like their Scouse/Brummie/Indian/Chinese accent.” The Accentism Project is dedicated to researching and generating discussion around linguistic discrimination in the UK.

Owners and managers don’t have confidence in you to do your job

Although it’s generally considered that linguistic biases can often be put to one side by employers in job interviews, the same can’t be said for a company’s employees. Writing for The Conversation, Professor Devyani Sharma stated that even if a person speaking with a non-standard variety may bypass the accent bias in an interview and get the job, they may “find that interactions in the workplace are a source of difficulty, impeding their ability to rise in seniority in the firm.”

Ger has found this to be the case, adding: “Owners and managers don’t have confidence in you to do your job.” He finds they’re reluctant to let him answer the phone or reply to a review or complaint, in case of being misunderstood. 

He feels that he always has to prove himself and that people presume him to be unintelligent or less credible while failing to acknowledge that English is his third language. 

There’s no point in complaining because your accent will then be seen as a weakness by your employers

He says it was disheartening at first “but something you get used to” — as are the jokes. “There’s no point in complaining because your accent will then be seen as a weakness by your employers.” 

Ger also tells The Overtake that he has a few friends who opted to take a lesser position in terms of responsibility and pay, due to the effect of people’s judgement of their accent on their confidence. 

Fiona Brennan, who was working at a London record label after moving from Leeds, recalls the time a colleague told her: “I used to think you were a bit stupid but, you’re not. It’s just your accent.” Comments like this can cause feelings of embarrassment and insecurity in non-standard speakers and may prevent them from progressing in their company due to a lack of confidence. 

Accent softening specialist Emma Serlin runs a London Speech Workshop that directly attempts to help individuals with problems associated with their accents. From a joke not translating in the pub with their colleagues, to being excluded from situations by seniors in their workplace due to communicative issues, many people may find that their accent causes embarrassment and makes them “feel like an outsider”. Serlin believes in helping people to unlock English “so they can use it as a tool to be fully themselves”. Importantly, Serlin adds, it isn’t about “losing an accent” or “saying there’s something wrong with how you speak”, it’s about empowering people to “be the best communicator [they] can [be] in English”.

We see people who don’t have standard English having a harder time

Accent softening can be used to help clients with the pronunciation of vowels, not mumbling, or avoiding particular sounds that “get in the way” of their everyday communication. Selin finds it boosts clients’ confidence and helps them to gain more professional opportunities. 

For Serlin, linguistic discrimination is not always conscious and so she feels that helping people to access English is a form of empowerment. Mooney agrees: “The problem is that because we’re all expert language users, it’s very difficult to be challenged on [our] ideas about language.” Biases around language are deep-rooted. We’re socially conditioned to think “standard” is better than regional and multicultural varieties. 

Sociolinguist Asif Agha stated in a study that RP was originally a “prestige variety of English” spoken around London, Oxford and Cambridge. While it was spoken only by a privileged few and “much of the national aristocracy spoke with regional varieties without stigma”, eventually RP came to be recognised as the national standard. Mooney told The Overtake that this is a result of ideology and power – we have been shown and told that RP is better: “We see people who use standard English succeeding. We see people who don’t have standard English having a harder time. It then becomes clear that one must be better than the other.”

Accent bias affects the hiring decisions and perceptions in professions from politics and journalism to hospitality and retail. Although it isn’t possible to say whether it directly causes immigrant, working-class and ethnic groups to become further marginalised in society, economically speaking but also socially, it clearly plays a huge role in the employability of individuals within these groups.

Multicultural, regional and foreign-accented Englishes being rated the lowest in prestige and pleasantness gives preference to those who speak “standard” English.

Mooney puts it perfectly: “The impact [of linguistic discrimination] on society is lost talent, but it is the impact on the individual that is much more negative.” 

2nd March 2020