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Jan 8, 2021

In a 2014 study from the University of Manchester, language professor Dr. Alex Baratta described accentism as “the last taboo” of modern society. Discrimination on the basis of regional accent was widespread, he said, and should be treated in the same way as racism, ageism, or sexism.

Having worked in the U.K. recruitment industry for the past two decades, I’m all too familiar with the impact of accent elitism. Our top-tier universities are dominated by privately educated students, most of whom speak “the Queen’s English.” Even teachers feel under pressure to adapt their accents, in a move that trains generations of children in a dialect-based hierarchy. 

Voice, Education, and Ethnicity

Happily, employees in America can take a swerve on Britain’s ancient class system. But code-switching especially the pressure to alter speech in a work environment is at play in a similar way in the U.S, where accents can also provoke snap judgements around social class, education, and ethnicity.

Studies show that it takes us less than 30 seconds to linguistically profile a speaker. American children as young as 10 think that Northern accents sound ”smarter” and more “in charge”; while people with non-standard accents (such as Russian or Japanese) face disadvantages in pay and are much less likely to be promoted to senior management positions. What’s more, some LinkedIn job listings still demand neutral accents, potentially in breach of U.S equal employment law

Suzan Elhajj, technical lead and co-chair for Indeed’s International Inclusion group in EMEA, is well-aware of these barriers. Originally from Palestine, she was raised in Jordan and moved to Ireland five years ago. “I have worked in multinational companies all my professional life,” she says. “Every time I am in a new setting, I am afraid people won’t understand me, so I make an effort to be clear in my communication. I sometimes make jokes about my accent to make it easier and overcome any tension.”

She admits, though, that other people in her situation “may exclude themselves from the conversation because they don’t feel like they will be heard or they belong.”

Accents are integrally caught up in other discriminatory issues such as race, too. Dr. Faye K. Cocchiara, clinical associate professor at the University of Texas’ College of Business, is an African-American with no recognizable accent. She saw firsthand how this fact impacted her employment prospects early in her career.

“In one instance, I was strongly considered for a position based on two separate telephone interviews,” she says. “However, when I met with the hiring manager, I could sense by his body language that he did not imagine that I would be Black. I did not get the job.” 

Dr. Cocchiara’s experience intrigued her, so she decided to explore the relationship between voice discrimination and recruitment further. Her dissertation research found that 89% of prospective employers were able to classify people’s voices on the basis of race — and whether or not those voices actually belonged to Black people. Candidates who were classified as being Black were subjected to more negative judgements as a result.

In other words, for job applicants, voice can serve as a proxy for race (as well as ethnicity, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, etc.).

Waking Up to Accent Discrimination

Willpower on the part of recruiters is not enough to overcome this inbuilt conditioning. “I found that even individuals who believe in equal treatment may subconsciously allow racist behaviors to creep into their decision-making,” says Dr. Cocchiara. The challenge employers face is to:

  1. Be continually aware that accentism colors your hiring decisions, and 
  2. Explore strategies to rebalance the scales. 

If left unchecked, accent discrimination can undermine every step of the recruitment journey, even at pre-interview stage. Blind recruitment is a good starting point that big corporates such as KPMG and HSBC are increasingly using to mitigate it. This involves removing any identifying factors about applicants — including things like national origin, which could be used to infer accent — to ensure that they don’t unconsciously influence decision-makers in the early stages. Employers can also use interactive chatbots to handle the first round of screening calls, again, reducing the risk of human-led accent bias.

Blind recruitment processes can be challenging to implement, however, and bigger employers will naturally fare better in arranging the investment needed for such a radical overhaul. There’s still a chance employers will make assumptions based on the information available, too: for example, nationality may be inferred from the school that a candidate attended. 

Contextual recruitment is another option. If you achieved high grades from a tough inner-city school, you likely worked harder for those grades than a private school candidate with the same results. Contextual systems are designed to award merit to disadvantaged candidates on the basis of barriers like this that they have overcome. Employers could use a similar approach to favor those who apply for a position in their non-native language. 

Giving Power Back to Candidates

“If someone has an accent, they always are worried about it,” says Elhajj. “They face barriers expressing themselves authentically, as well as the fear of answering or asking questions.”

Again, tech can help empower applicants here. Take something simple like a live-chat platform that answers key questions and provides further insights on a vacancy. Immediately, this puts applicants on the front foot: they are able to access information on their own terms, in a non-pressurized and anonymized way. 

Live virtual events can be really effective, too. By running live presentations or Q&As, employers are throwing the doors open on their company culture. 

Additionally, role models are central. Rather than just talking about your values, it’s much better to live them by running an outreach seminar that features employees with different accents. Or, better still, confront the issue head-on and create a workshop series on accent discrimination awareness: both for candidates and employees. 

“Understanding that this bias exists will help tremendously in making sure people have an equal opportunity to advance in the selection process,” says Dr. Cocchiara. “There are often many phases during employment selection, which means there are many chances for decision-makers to discriminate. Knowing that accent can serve as a cue over the telephone will help these decision-makers avoid illegal discrimination.”

Elhajj agrees: “Employers should make efforts to educate themselves on their biases and invest in training to learn where their development areas are.”

Rationally, we know that no version of spoken English is inherently better than another. But that doesn’t stop us from making judgements all the same. The trick is to recognize and find ways to proactively reduce this risk. With the right engagement structures in place, companies can create a warm, welcoming process that puts accessibility and trust centrestage — no matter where in the world candidates are from.

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