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Recap: Accents in the Workplace

Published: 4 May 2023

Your accent is not directly relevant to work outputs. Simple, right? Despite that, we often unthinkingly associate certain accents with certain stereotypes, with public perceptions of Received Pronunciation being largely positive as opposed to accents associated with industrial cities of England and ethnic minorities. 

Accent bias can have many repercussions in the workplace, with the potential to affect hiring decisions or promotion opportunities. Research shows that it has a devastating impact on individuals too, producing anxiety or worries about their accent affecting their ability to succeed in the future.  

Our April masterclass explored how you can raise awareness of the issue of accent bias in your own organisation and what steps you can take to ensure that the focus is on the knowledge and skills of your employee and candidates, and not their accent.

It was great to hear from Professor Devyani Sharma from Queen Mary University of London, co-author of Speaking Up: Accents and social mobility, as well as Antoinette Willcocks, Director and UK Head of Diversity at FleishmanHillard UK, who spoke about why this topic matters, and how we can raise awareness. 

If you missed it, you can watch the full recording below, or read on to discover the big things we learned! You can also find Professor Devyani Sharma’s slides here


Accent bias is everywhere

Lots of people will tell you “I don’t have an accent”, but, as Devyani points out, everyone has an accent. Everyone also has bias, not just ‘bad people’, and the first step to eliminating accent bias is to recognise it. We all rely on shortcuts to process information, and accents will always trigger social stereotypes, whether positive or negative. “That’s hard to avoid,” she says. Accent discrimination is when we use those stereotypes to make judgements about someone’s competence and skills. 

While accent is not a protected characteristic, it is used as a signal for other characteristics e.g. ethnicity. Think, for example, of the way that the language of young black East Londoners is often explicitly described as ‘bad.’ “People wouldn’t express that as racial bias,” says Devyani, “but that’s what it is – it’s directly linked to an identifiable group.”

The crucial thing is that people aren’t aware of how much they use accent to signal other characteristics. 

It’s simple to improve

Research showed that whilst awareness of accent bias is low, lots of people will admit to discriminating based on accent if asked! 

In some ways, says Devyani, this is actually positive, as it means that there is scope to improve the situation with relatively simple interventions. 

In fact, when tested, the simplest intervention was actually the most successful! Just reminding people about the possibility of accent bias reduced the difference in scoring of identical job interview answers given in different accents. As awareness of accent bias and how much we rely on accent as cues for skills and abilities is so low, this simple message can really help to encourage people to set aside those biases. 

However, Devyani points out that unconscious bias training does not eliminate our biases, it just makes us aware of them. The only way to actually reduce bias is by real world change and long term exposure to different accents in a variety of professions. 

Talking about it is essential

Antoinette highlighted the importance of asking people about their experiences, pointing out that having research like ‘Speaking Up: Accents and social mobility’ and FleishmanHillard’s report, ‘The Language of Discrimination’ has generated a lot of conversation in her workplace. In fact, it was their Social Mobility employee network who first wanted to explore commissioning The Language of Discrimination, which resulted in this co-authored report exploring the lived experience of under-represented groups in the creative industries against a representative poll of UK adults working across all sectors.  

“It’s brought people to the table to talk about D&I who weren’t previously involved,” she says, and that is something that benefits everyone, as it gets even more people across an organisation thinking about where there might be barriers for people who have certain accents and what they might do to mitigate those. 

Devyani agrees, reminding us that the research shows many people just haven’t thought about their own accent bias. You can have a big effect just by raising the issue in your organisation, as people quickly realise how it can be problematic. “Most people don’t want to be having those effects on each other,” she says, so speaking out and raising awareness can have a real impact. 

This is a concrete action that both those experiencing access bias, and leaders with the power to change their organisation can take, and Antoinette thinks it’s the number one thing for both groups to start with. “Start having this kind of conversation,” she recommends, “There’s so much research out there. Having a conversation about issues that weren’t previously on the table changes people’s understanding and raises awareness.” 

Don’t be afraid to speak up, and if you hear what you think might be accent bias challenge it – whether it’s feedback given to you or about someone else. 

Final thoughts

One great question that we didn’t have time to answer live was about whether it was useful to teach young people about the barriers they might face, or whether this could actually be detrimental to their confidence. 

Antoinette isn’t sure there’s a right answer here, because so much depends on the young people involved and the kind of environment they find themselves in. “There will be many people from ethnic minority backgrounds (myself included) who were told that they will have to work twice as hard as everyone else, don’t give people any reason to doubt you,” she says, and while it can encourage people to work hard, on the other hand, “it’s not great going into a work setting with that pressure and mindset weighing on you.”

She believes that instead of talking about the barriers young people might face, we should focus instead on giving them the skills they need to overcome and perhaps even avoid some of them altogether. Devyani emphasised the importance of confidence and how appearing confident in your answers can minimise the impact of accent bias. “I think this is key,” says Antoinette, “and also enthusiasm and understanding how to prepare for meetings, presentations etc. There is research that suggests that if you’re not very experienced, you can compensate for this by being confident, showing enthusiasm and being well prepared.”