A quarter of employees have been mocked, criticised or singled-out at work because of their accent.
A study by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust and the Accent Bias in Britain project found accent bias persists throughout school, university and employees’ careers, with many employees feeling their accent prevents them from being successful at work.
Professor Devyani Sharma from Queen Mary University London, author of the report, said: “Accent-based discrimination actively disadvantages certain groups at key junctures for social mobility, such as job interviews. This creates a negative cycle, whereby regional, working class, and minority ethnic accents are heard less in some careers or positions of authority, reinforcing anxiety and marginalisation for those speakers.
“It is natural for people to associate accents with social groups, but relying on accent stereotypes to judge professional ability in this way is discriminatory. Indeed, accent bias often becomes a proxy for discrimination against characteristics protected under the Equality Act.”
The researchers considered a range of different accents and perceptions of these. Received Pronunciation (RP), French-accented English, and ‘national’ standard varieties (Scottish, American, Southern Irish) all ranked highly in terms of “prestige”, while accents associated with industrial cities of England (Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham), and ethnic minority accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) are the lowest ranked.
It noted that RP is often the most prevalent accent within the media and in positions of power, despite only an estimated 10% of the UK population having this accent.
Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds reported significantly more mocking or singling out at work, with 29% of senior managers from working class families having been mocked or criticised because of their accent. Only 22% from “better off” backgrounds said the same.
Accent bias at work was most commonly experienced by employees from the north of England. Forty per cent of early careers employees from this region have been mocked, criticised or singled out because of their accent.
There was also widespread concern among employees about how accent bias could affect their ability to succeed. This was experienced by 22% of those aged 18-24, 28% of 25-34s, and 38% of those aged 35 or older.
These negative attitudes extended to those in more senior positions. One in five people whose parents were from a lower socio-economic grade felt their accent would hamper their ability to succeed, compared with one in eight people from better off families.
I will assume that someone with a posh accent is better educated, more intelligent and reliable than someone with a less smart accent.” – survey respondent
However, among senior managers, anxiety about their accent improved with age. Only 9% of senior managers aged 55 and over were worried about it affecting success, compared with 21% of 1 to 34 year-olds. The report suggests this could be due to younger people either encountering more bias, or being more likely to perceive comments as bias. However, its survey suggested that many older professionals had suppressed their non-RP accents earlier in life to avoid discrimination.
One employee with an “estuary English” accent (from the area around the River Thames) told researchers they had been denied a promotion and received feedback that stated: “great candidate, shame about the voice”.
Another employee from Liverpool said they were told: “you’re not a typical civil servant, are you?”.
One employee with a Received Pronunciation accent admitted: “I will assume that someone with a posh accent is better educated, more intelligent and reliable than someone with a less smart accent. I should emphasise that I don’t think it’s right to do this, it’s just one of a series of snap judgements I make about people I meet.”
The Speaking Up report makes numerous recommendations for employers to help tackle negative stereotypes and the impact these views can have on how skills and abilities are judged.
The recommendations include:
- viewing accent bias as an important workplace inclusion issue, alongside efforts to tackle discrimination against other characteristics such as ethnicity and sex
- training recruiters to help reduce accent biases
- ensuring organisations have a range of accents across their workforce
- tackling biases, prejudices or mockery within work-related social settings
- not expecting employees to sound like they are from a certain region, socio-economic background or educational background.
Sutton Trust founder and chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “Today’s research provides new evidence on the major role that accents play in social mobility. It is disgraceful that people are mocked, criticised or singled out for their accents throughout their education, work and social lives.
“In order to address accent bias, today’s report recommends that action should be taken to diversify the workplace so that there is a range of accents within the organisation.”