Case study

Can your accent be a barrier to your employment prospects?

The standard accents of English in the UK and other countries are generally regarded very positively, associated with traits such as intelligence, competence, reliability and industriousness, while non-standard accents are often not thought of so favourably. Our research investigates the impact these different perceptions may have on UK applicants’ access to employment in the elite occupations, in particular in the legal profession.

The issue

There is a long history of accent-based prejudice in English-speaking countries, and although it is now perhaps less acceptable to voice negative views about other people’s speech than it once was. Previous research has shown that speakers of standard varieties such as British Received Pronunciation are perceived to be better-educated, more competent, even better-looking, than speakers of non-standard varieties. Non-standard accents of English are widely considered inferior, even if they are thought quaint or charming. But often they are stigmatised as ‘incorrect’ or ‘careless’.

It follows that these attitudes have the potential to influence decisions made by those responsible for recruiting employees, perhaps most particularly in ‘elite’ professions such as law or medicine, in which oral communication skills are especially highly valued. The Accent Bias in Britain (ABB) project investigates the extent to which accent-based bias may affect applicants’ employment prospects using a variety of controlled experimental techniques, and trials several interventions designed to mitigate the effects of these, often unconscious, biases.

The research

Unequal outcomes for minority groups in professional hiring has been widely reported. Yet the role played by the best-known signal of class and ethnic difference in the UK - accent - has until now remained largely unexplored. However, it is known that accent may figure in how people are discriminated against in employment contexts. A 2006 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 76 per cent of employers admitted to discriminating against applicants on the basis of their accents, while only three per cent of employers nationally include accent or dialect differences as a protected characteristic.

A recent study by the Social Mobility Commission found that working-class candidates are often unable to gain access to elite professions, despite having the relevant qualifications and skills, because of informal ‘poshness tests’, such as a candidate’s style of speaking. If recruiters, who act as gatekeepers to these professions, favour candidates for reasons of prestige rather than merit, it can lead to a vicious circle whereby non-traditional candidates are discriminated against, reducing their visibility in high prestige contexts, and further stigmatising their accents. The issue of whether accent bias exists, and when it can cross the line into actual discrimination, therefore urgently requires proper investigation, and our primary goals are:

  • To identify whether accent bias exists in professional hiring contexts, and what impacts this can have. We aim to provide a research-led knowledge resource on the presence of bias and its effects; to address several gaps in the existing research record; and to respond to the Social Mobility Commission’s call to identify implicit hiring criteria that may perpetuate bias in recruitment.
  • To understand the causes and effects of any bias and to provide an informed, evidence-based understanding of attitudes to accents in the UK today. ABB offers an updated quantitative picture of attitudes to accents in Britain, a precise measure of what specific aspects of accent are the target of bias, and an examination of the real-world consequences of such attitudes.
  • To test tools, training and techniques that can be used to combat bias. We are carrying out controlled testing of the relative success or failure of different anti-bias interventions, aiming to provide policymakers with potential remedies for the effects of bias in employment in the UK and elsewhere.

The outcome

We focus on five major stakeholder and beneficiary groups for the project, each with distinct interests and priorities:

  • National policymakers, including the Social Mobility Commission, the leading national public advisory body that addresses impediments to social mobility
  • Human Resources organisations: HR representatives have indicated a particular interest in the project’s assessment of the impacts of different types of training intervention
  • Legal profession: the group most directly affected by the project. Our Advisory Board includes Aspiring Solicitors, an organisation supporting diversity in the legal profession with a membership of over 20,000 aspiring lawyers and employers
  • University students, who are the next generation in elite professions
  • General public: a key beneficiary of better understandings of how language attitudes can impede social mobility.

If we are serious about tackling inequality and unfairness in the workplace, as well as in other spheres of contemporary life, we must address all the sources of prejudice and find ways to combat them.

Dr Dominic Watt
Project Co-investigator
Featured researcher
Dominic Watt

Dominic Watt

Dr Watt is Senior Lecturer in Forensic Speech Science. His teaching and research are in forensic linguistics, sociophonetics, language and identity studies, accents of English, and dialectology.

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