Accentism- the last bastion of workplace prejudice?

To understand discrimination, you need to look deep into psychology and biology.

by Nick Band

All humans have cognitive biases – simplified ways of thinking that help us to process what’s going on around us, quickly.  In its most simple form, it means we prefer to be amongst our own kind. It’s the reason lions don’t roam the grasslands with hippos and why kids’ playgrounds tend to be separated between girls and boys. Whilst much of this prejudice can be programmed out through experience and education, primeval unconscious bias remains.

Unconscious bias is triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments. They are influenced by our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context. It is not just about gender, ethnicity or other visible diversity characteristics – height, body weight, names, and many other things can also trigger unconscious bias.

Accent is no exception: we all have automatic associations with accents, particularly as accents often trigger social stereotypes relating to specific regions, cultures, ages, genders, and social classes.

This becomes a big issue in recruitment with countless studies revealing prejudice against candidates with particular regional accents. The French have a word for it -la glottophobie – and new laws have been introduced to punish those found guilty of discrimination based on accent.

In the UK, which has one of the broadest range of accents amongst English speaking nations, discrimination still exists.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote:” It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishmen despise him.”         
The Queen Mary University of London conducted a study in which participants heard five accents:
1.      received pronunciation (the Queen’s English),
2.      estuary English (working or lower middle class, associated with traditional, ethnically white Londoners),
3.      multicultural London English (associated with young multi-ethnic working class Londoners),
4.      general northern English (middle class),
5.      urban West Yorkshire English (working class).
Younger people didn’t judge accents differently at all. But, those above the age of 40 judged speakers of the two working class London accents to be less competent and less hireable, even though all candidates gave exactly the same responses. Bias was also greater among people who grew up in southern England and were from a higher social class.

Another study which played 100 voices to a group of young adults in southern England revealed that an Essex accent gave the impression that the speaker was less intelligent and less trustworthy. Ironically the researcher- Dr Amanda Cole, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Essex’s Department of Language and Linguistics- has an Essex accent!
Whether they are positive or negative, different assumptions are made based on accents in Great Britain. In 2013, ComRes and ITV interviewed 2,006 adults in early August, 2,014 adults in mid August and 2,025 adults in September to determine the attitudes to different regional accents. They found that 28% of Brits feel discriminated against because of the way they speak. 14% feel accent discrimination in the workplace and 12% in job interviews.
In this study, they found the most intelligent accent was deemed to be The Queen’s English and the Liverpudlian the least.
With the marketing industry dominated by white, middleclass people, accentism is an occupational hazard. Like it or not, unconscious bias is at work at all stages of the recruitment process.

As an industry we need to bury our prejudices. Regional accents are part of the colourful tapestry of multi-cultural Britain and not a badge of ability. With increased mobility and the prevalence of remote working, the tribes are mixing and the sooner we come to terms with it, the better for all.
See our blog on ageism.