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Accent bias: why we need to tackle discrimination at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Prejudice based on stereotypes still affect people at work. Photo: Getty

Whether we realise it or not, most of us have a ‘phone voice.’

Some might change their accent intentionally, others may do it subconsciously – but plenty of us alter the way we speak when we make a call.

Last year, a study by the business telecoms provider 4Com found 44% of people are conscious of how their accents make them appear at work. A further 28% said they change the way they speak to sound more professional.

More worryingly, people with regional accents are often discriminated against at work. A study by the law firm Peninsular found 80% of employers admitted to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents.

Another study by Professor Lance Workman of the University of South Wales discovered that employers favour some accents over others. Specifically, people who speak the ‘Queen’s English’, or received pronunciation, are more likely to be recruited – despite it being spoken by only 3% of the population.

Accents are a key part of our identity, a product of our backgrounds, upbringing and heritage – and they are something to be proud of. Yet we are quick to judge others depending on the way they sound, and often apply outdated stereotypes.

According to research dating back to 1984, it takes us less than 30 seconds to profile someone depending on how their voice sounds, and make snap decisions on their socio-economic class, background and ethnic origin.

Regional accents in particular, such as Scouse, Geordie and Yorkshire accents, are predominantly subject to stereotyping and prejudice. According to recent research by Texas State University, the construction of social identity and high ethnocentric values are key reasons why accent bias exists.

“We sound the way we do for a whole range of reasons – cultural, emotional, social – and we tend to judge other people's accents on the same basis. I passionately love Lancashire accents, for example, because it sounds like home to me,” speech expert Professor Sophie Scott of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said in a talk in 2017.

“But when our judgements about people's attractiveness or intelligence or capability are based on their accent, then this cultural baggage we all have has the potential to become discriminatory. The words people are using are a far better test of ability or competence than the way they are saying them.”

We’re more likely to be biased against speakers who have different accents to our own, or against accents to which we unconsciously attribute undesirable qualities.

The Brummie accent, for example, is often maligned and numerous surveys have declared it the “least attractive accent in the UK”. This is something researchers attribute to the flat vowels associated with it – a well-known Birmingham joke involves the terms “cup of tea” and “kipper tie” being mixed up.

In 2013, a poll by ITV and ComRes asked 4,000 Britons to rate accents on friendliness, intelligence and trustworthiness. Among the results, it was said that people from Devon were considered the most friendly and trustworthy, while the Liverpudlian accents were deemed the least trustworthy.

The survey also found that more than a quarter of Britons – 28% – felt they had been discriminated against because of their regional accent.

There is no legislation to protect someone from accent discrimination. However, an employee may bring a claim for discrimination on the grounds of race or nationality if they are discriminated against for having a foreign accent.

It’s important for employers to ensure those with accents aren’t singled out in any way and to make sure the recruitment process does not discriminate, for example, by training interviewers to recognise and avoid subconscious bias.

It’s also crucial to consider the benefits of having a range of different voices in the workplace. Multiple studies have shown having a diverse workforce which includes people from all walks of life isn’t just morally right, it benefits businesses too - boosting innovation, decision-makingperformance and ultimately, revenue.