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How accent bias is silencing candidate potential

4 mins  |  16.04.2024

As someone who grew up in a small town in the North East of England, my accent is my identity. I carry it with great pride. And I’m no stranger to having my vowel sounds repeated back to me and the laughs when I say something a little more ‘out of the ordinary’... 

what yer cooking for yer tea? 

Accent bias is the inherent prejudice against those with non-RP accents (don't know if this is the exact definition, please go with me). More often than not, it leaves those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds swimming against the corporate tide — placing the idea of cracking the glass ceiling even further out of reach. 

We’re all aware of the concept of bias, but often criminally unaware of our own biases in the day to day – it is no stranger, or is often at its worst in the workplace. Bias is also okay, as long as we acknowledge it and work to combat it. 

I don't mind being the punchline of a joke every now and again. But why is it that the 'banter is bullying' doesn't extend to accents? Is it still funny when it makes me a token jester, rather than an industry expert? 

No. And it's definitely not a joke when I'm paying for it. When it's statistically costing those with a regional accent 20% of their pay, it turns from an occasional joke into a ridiculously expensive comedy show, that some are forced to go to every year.

Ultimately, the job hunt then becomes a different language altogether. 

So, it's not funny, or canny, or luvvly. But blame doesn't make it any easier. Accent bias isn't necessarily all our fault — it's what makes us human. We naturally make assumptions and judgments based on what's put in front of us, making it easier to assume lazy biases.

Like a verbal passport, the way that someone speaks provides an insight into their social status, class background and geographical origins –  so it’s easy to jump to conclusions. This is before we acknowledge that the brain has to work harder when speaking to someone with a foreign accent; so in the spirit of working smarter, you’re likely to start looking towards preconceptions, not facts. 

But, what’s easy isn’t always what’s right and if you're working in a team that sounds and looks exactly like you, diversity of thought probably isn't your strong suit.

So, it's a problem — for you, and for me. But why is that? With accent being so closely linked to socioeconomic status and cultural capital, accent bias lends itself to exclusion and inequality. 

Only three percent of employers treat accent as a protected characteristic.

Quick maths, 97% do not. That means, whether conscious or unconscious, bias and discrimination are more likely to occur with little to no means of addressing it.

It’s no surprise then, that we’ve started to see accent creeping up as one of the main concerns when discussing recruitment biases. With ‘accent anxiety’ being a particular concern amongst those with Northern accents, 17% of those surveyed in Liverpool indicated concern as to how their accent might impact hireability.

Despite this, almost all studies of bias in recruiting have failed to explore the specific role of accent. 

And frankly, it’s a bit stupid – Charles from accounts who speaks RP is a lovely bloke, but the talent pool is much broader. Are we really going to overlook someone who drops their Ts just because the next interviewee doesn’t?

With 76% of employers having admitted to discrimination on the basis of an accent, it’s no surprise that those with ‘non-conventional’ dialects feel like they're fighting an uphill battle. Whilst you’re probably reading this hoping your employer lies in the 24%, it’s a stark reminder that we can all do more. 

At an organisational level, make sure your people feel seen and heard. Whilst it’s difficult to tie any diversity targets to a person’s accent (or lack thereof), you can ensure that accents are accounted for in your DEI practices and training. Those involved in your hiring teams should acknowledge accent bias and how this can impact your recruitment process – there’s free resources available online through Accent Bias Britain to help here. 

On an individual level – don’t be a lazy listener. Lose your preconceptions and listen to what’s being said, not the accent it’s being said in. If you didn’t understand someone’s dialect, it’s as easy as ‘can you repeat that, please?’ before you discount what they’ve said. 

There’s a seat for everyone at the table, regardless of your accent. And whilst we’ve got a way to go, acknowledgement is a good place to start. Let’s do better.

Feeling purple?


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