Does HR have an issue with accent bias?
Whilst bias is increasingly discussed within the workplace, it seems that one particular aspect of this discrimination may well be largely ignored...
Factors such as race, gender, disability or sexual orientation are often discussed when looking to combat bias within the workplace. However many other forms of prejudice also impact workplace wellbeing or career progression also exist. These are often grouped as unconscious bias and are the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people attribute to others. According to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) one of these biases is around accent.
How accent bias impacts work?
According to a report titled Attitudes to Accents in Britain and Implications for Fair Access released by the council in partnership with the University of York, Queen Mary University and Accent Bias Britain, over 50 years of research has concluded that British people “tend to downgrade non-standard working-class accents and selected ethnic minority accents, and upgrade accents historically perceived as more prestigious”.
Workplace Psychologist and Author, Sheryl Miller, notes that this impacts the ability to progress at work as well as wellbeing and being authentic. “To varying degrees, many of us may underplay aspects of our true self in order to get ‘ahead’. This is especially true of marginalised workers (LGBT, black, disabled,) who may avoid, deny, disassociate or underplay their appearance, world values and behaviour in order to conform to the set standards of corporate culture. Accent is undoubtedly an element that is often masked,” she said.
Assumptions about language that many people think are 'common sense' are rooted in arbitrary and subjective preferences rather than linguistic realityDevyani Sharma, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University of London
However, despite the scale at which accent bias is felt within the workplace, Nicole Natur, Employment Solicitor at Ramsdens Solicitors says that legal protections for those experiencing it can be murky. “Discrimination on the grounds of a person's accent is probably more common than you might think, but there appears to be less general awareness surrounding it. The Equalities Act 2010 identifies characteristics that are protected by it, but none specifically relate to accents. At present, the law does not protect those who face discriminatory treatment due to a ‘regional’ accent. An example of this might be someone with an accent commonly associated with one region in the UK having a job promotion rejected from an employer in another region of the UK on account of their accent.”
To varying degrees, many of us may underplay aspects of our true self in order to get ‘ahead’Workplace Psychologist and Author, Sheryl Miller
So, given that the law is at best questionable around discrimination based on accent alone, what can HR do to protect those who may experiencing discrimination at work? Devyani Sharma, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University of London and member of Accent Bias Britain states that the recent study conducted by the group (as referenced above) shows worrying trends within the UK, of which HR must be acutely aware. “This work sheds new light on the way in which bias can creep into judgements, but also the way in which it can be negated,” she says.
According to Sharma, the most effective way of eradicating accent bias is through training. Due to the nature of unconscious bias, many professionals may well be completely unaware of their own bias and how it affects others. Therefore, she recommends that all companies conducted training to address the issue and bring it into the collective employee consciousness.
Discrimination on the grounds of a person's accent is probably more common than you might think, but there appears to be less general awareness surrounding itNicole Natur, Employment Solicitor at Ramsdens Solicitors
“One of the goals of the Accent Bias in Britain project is to develop interventions to help [workers] to understand how harmful accent-based discrimination can be, and how assumptions about language that many people think are 'common sense' are rooted in arbitrary and subjective preferences rather than linguistic reality,” she says. “Unconscious bias training can, therefore, address not the complete elimination of long-held and often unconscious preferences, but the management of their impact on judgement.