In Speaking Up: Accents and social mobility, published last year by the Sutton Trust, researchers looked at accent bias throughout life, highlighting how experiences differed by socio-economic background.
They found that ‘public attitudes to different accents have remained largely unchanged over time – with Received Pronunciation (RP – sometimes known as ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’) ranking highly as opposed to accents associated with industrial cities of England and ethnic minority accents.’ Even more alarmingly for social mobility, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds report significantly more mocking or singling out of their accent in workplace and social settings.
With few so-called ‘visible indicators’ of socio-economic background, accent has become one of the primary signals of socio-economic status in the UK. Ahead of our employers’ masterclass ‘Accents in the Workplace’, we asked colleagues Gemma Wykes and Paula Kemp to tell us about their experiences and what they think employers can do to address the situation.
“Being from the North East of England and growing up with family members from various areas across the UK, I never felt self-conscious about my accent.
Fast-forward to the tender age of 18 when I ventured to university, and things changed almost overnight.
Entering the lecture theatre for the first time and meeting fellow students from all backgrounds it soon became clear that my lack of Received Pronunciation wasn’t quite the voice that fit the bill for some, and I often found myself exposed to slurs and assumptions about my background based solely on how I pronounced everyday words.
Following university, I moved back to the North East and started a career in sales and marketing. That meant often having to present to clients, but I always felt dread when I heard them reply with that RP accent, automatically starting to doubt my ability purely because of the taunting I had previously experienced.
Then one day I met someone who changed my outlook on my accent. He was a CEO for a multinational organisation, a born and bred Geordie [nickname for a person from the Tyneside area of North East England, and the dialect used there] and super proud of the fact!
Hearing him speak to a room of over 100 delegates with all his local twang was an inspirational moment. I am proud of my background, where I grew up and where I am now raising my family – it is what defines me, just like my accent.”
“Like Gemma, I too had my South London accent mocked whilst at university. The most difficult part about it though, was that it was by my tutor in our first ever tutor group! I suspect he thought it was ‘engaging banter’ at the time, but the reality of it was that I ended up not saying very much in that group for the next year!
I have also experienced accent bias in the workplace – with comments made either directly to me or about others with strong, regional accents. From ‘oh, you went all cockney then, I couldn’t take you seriously’ to ‘I can’t offer him the job – I can’t get past the fact he talks exactly the same as [insert name of poor performing previous colleague]’ to ‘And is she really really Brummie?’ [ie. does she have a strong accent and dialect of English that is associated with Birmingham and the Midlands].”
Accent anxiety and experiences of discrimination
Speaking Up: Accents and social mobility shows that accent anxiety and experience of discrimination is widespread, and Gemma and Paula’s accounts highlight the reality of this.
Due to Gemma’s previous experience, she feared speaking publicly, especially when she was the only person with her accent talking.
Paula overheard conversations where someone’s accent was a barrier to them succeeding at work, whether that be at the recruitment stage or not being taken seriously in their role.
Many people will have experienced or witnessed similar situations. So, what can employers do to address this issue?
A great starting point is to include recognising accent bias as part of your diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy.
For instance, if your organisation recruits hybrid workers to widen the talent pool, look at areas where you can advertise for roles in social mobility coldspots. Broaden your diversity and inclusion training to include raising awareness of accent bias, so candidates from certain areas are not disadvantaged.
Ensure all your internal and external communications showcase a wide range of accents that sit within your organisation. If you are a national organisation, you wouldn’t just feature photos from one geographical location in your recruitment communications – nor should you feature only one type of accent!
Gemma felt her accent anxiety lift as soon as she heard a similar accent to hers talking, being listened to and taken seriously – having visibility of the broad range of accents that make up your business will help create a sense of belonging.
Raise awareness of accent bias
The researchers in the report tested five different workplace unconscious bias training exercises and found that by ‘simply having potential recruiters read a short awareness-raising text before the recruiting task significantly reduced accent based differences in ratings of the same response’.
They interpreted this as an indication that people are genuinely unaware of how much they rely on accent as a shortcut for making assumptions about competence or expertise. Therefore, by addressing this ahead of the interview, the interviewers are alerted to the potential risks of making a judgement based on accent rather than content.
For that colleague of Paula’s who struggled to separate an interview candidate from a previously poor-performing colleague who spoke in the same way, had they been reminded to focus on the content of what that individual was saying, rather than how they were saying it, they might have been more prone to objectively assess the candidate’s potential in the role.
Call it out
Regardless of your position in an organisation, there are always channels open to address unacceptable behaviour, and that includes calling out accent bias when you experience or hear it. If the individual the comments are aimed at doesn’t feel comfortable raising it, it is important that others do it on their behalf.
In the most extreme cases, accent bias can be tackled through an organisation’s Bullying and Harassment policy, designed to challenge actions or comments that are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient. It is every colleague’s responsibility to ensure that when unacceptable behaviour occurs they address it through the variety of channels available (i.e. line management, HR, senior leadership).
Highlight the importance of focusing on what is being said, rather than how.
By considering the inclusive practices raised above, employers can raise awareness of this often (ironically) unspoken bias, and build a more inclusive culture.
In a previous Masterclass ‘How to talk about Class in the Workplace’ one of our speakers, Tim Smith, Partner at law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP (BCLP) summed it up nicely when he said “It’s important for everyone to understand the value hearing a variety of different accents brings to an organisation. For me, in my line of work, it is simple – conveying advice in law is about the content. It’s about what you are saying and not how you are saying it!”.