Accent Bias and the Workplace

over 1 year ago by Sophie Stones

Accent Bias and the Workplace


In 2017, a survey conducted by Debut Careers, found that over half of all young people would disguise their regional accent if possible, in an interview. Making up the rich tapestry of the United Kingdom, masking our individual inflections is reducing company diversity, so why is it that so many of us think it’s necessary, within a work environment?

In 2013, a segment on the Tonight Show found that 28% of people felt they had been discriminated against because of the way they speak, however it turns out the number is actually much higher, with YouGov more recently finding over 80% of all employers admitting to making discriminatory decisions based on accent.

Within marketing and media, accents are used to promote a specific tone of voice, with companies like PlusNet employing northern accents in order to project a down-to-earth and trustworthy brand image. Similarly films which depict an intelligent but ultimately cold villain, have a tendency to choose actors with Received Pronunciation accents. RPA accents, associated with the upper, educated class, have been proven to imply a ‘less trustworthy sincere or friendly’ character, according to research conducted by language expert Chi Lui. Examples of this can be seen as far back as within The Jungle Book, with Shere Khan and in Silence of the Lambs with Anthony Hopkins.

Politician, Angela Rayner, has complained of being consistently judged during her career due to her Northern accent, with papers insinuating she was of low intelligence and class. Her experience isn’t solitary either, media personality Dawn Maria, claims to have been constantly warned away from her career, with people suggesting her Yorkshire accent would stop her from progressing as a broadcaster. Likewise, within an experiment on how accents are connected to perceived intellect, the Birmingham accent was actually ranked lower in intelligence than silence.

The minds behind the YouGov poll linked this directly to the finance sector, which is said to be one of the harshest judges in terms of initial impressions, “the evidence presented here suggests that aspirational bankers can be ruled as unfit for the profession on the basis of speech and accent, even where their technical aptitude is exceptional.”

IT company Fujitsu have promised to trial voice distortion apps once the technology has improved, in a bid to remove bias from the selection process. This technique however is more treating the symptoms than the cause, and will eventually come undone, when an in-person interview becomes necessary.

“Speakers of the standard form are considered the ones that have no accent and any dialect that strays from that is stigmatised in one way or another. The truth is however that we all have an accent.”

Ingrained prejudice is a tricky one to beat, however we have to be aware of any subliminal bias occurring within the hiring process, judging on intelligence and attitude rather than the sound of our voices. Although implementing positive discrimination processes has come under fire in the past, when it comes to accents, whether this applies to northern England or further afield, the statistics say it all; maybe it’s become a necessity.