Nearly half of UK workers have experienced accentism
A study by the Sutton Trust, which aims to improve social mobility, found that nearly half of UK workers have been singled out or mocked about their accents in work-related social settings and a quarter have been mocked for their accents at work.
19% of employees were concerned that their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future and 23% felt self-conscious of their accent at work.
Those who speak in Received Pronunciation (sometimes known as 'BBC English') disproportionately occupy positions of authority. This can lead to unfavourable stereotypes related to intelligence, education and socio-economic background about those who speak with regional accents, particularly from the North or the Midlands.
Accents can be linked to socio-economic status. So, recruiting based on candidates' accents can act as a barrier to professional success for those from poorer backgrounds. The Harvard Business Review reported that companies with diverse management teams have nearly 20% higher profits and better innovation outcomes than businesses with less diverse leadership. So, if you want to reap the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace, what should you do?
Recognise accent bias as an important diversity issue, that you should resolve along with your other efforts to reduce discrimination. Tackle accent bias as part of a wider strategy to improve representation from all socio-economic backgrounds.
Improve understanding and awareness
Train all employees, but particularly those who recruit or promote, to recognise their accent biases and help them combat any related assumptions they may make about prospective employees, colleagues and clients. Topics could include breaking down the stereotypical association of professionalism with accents from a certain region or socio-economic background. Remind them to focus on candidates' knowledge and skills. The Sutton Trust reports that 'accent-related commentary and mockery are highest in social settings, and this can compromise a person’s sense of belonging in a given professional or educational community. Do not tolerate discriminatory behaviour at work-related social events.
Improve accent variety
Do not require employees to speak with a particular accent. Training will be ineffective unless you aim to hire candidates with a variety of accents. The Sutton Trust remarks, 'as long as we hear the same accents in certain workplaces, we will not be used to hearing others in those contexts, and our unconscious biases will remain'.
Recruit from a variety of regions, countries and socio-economic backgrounds by offering outreach programmes focused on local schools and communities. This could include mentoring or work experience schemes aimed at students and working-age individuals, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Improve data measurement
You cannot manage what you cannot measure. PWC has implemented the Social Mobility Commission's recommendation to collecting data on its workforce's socio-economic backgrounds, by asking simple questions. An example is including a question about eligibility for school meals and the occupation of the main household earner when employees were 14 years old as part of a confidential equal opportunities monitoring survey. Consider collecting data to improve your recruitment tools, and to create internal benchmarks to monitor the progress of employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds.