“Accentism”: 25% of employees report having accents mocked at work

  • Equality & Diversity
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

In a report by The Sutton Trust, 1 in 4 UK employees say they’ve had their accents mocked at work.

Devyani Sharma, the author, says this ‘accent bias’ creates a negative cycle. For people with regional, working class, and minority ethnic accents, it means they’re less likely to take positions of authority, she says. And this creates further anxiety and marginalisation.

People use the term “accentism” to mean discriminating against someone because of their accent. An example of this might be not giving someone a job because of their accent or ‘mimicking’ them as a joke.

Accent bias is often unconscious. Which makes it easier to sever opportunities, self-esteem, and progression. And all under the radar…

That’s why if you want to be an equal opportunities employer, this is how you tackle it…

1. Be inclusive when you recruit

People may hear a strong regional accent and unconsciously assume that person isn’t well-educated. And some might hear an RP accent and assume that person wouldn’t fit into the workplace culture.

Accent bias can affect key decision-making. So, you need to be thinking about it even before you hire.

If you want to create a diverse workforce and provide equal opportunities, you have to make an effort to employ people from all walks of life.

This means giving equal opportunities to all candidates, no matter where they’re from or how they speak.

As the report says, “As long as we hear the same accents in certain workplaces, we’re not used to hearing others in those contexts, and our unconscious biases will remain in place.”

To remove the bias from your hiring process and make it more inclusive, you could:

  • Make it anonymous

You could remove information about the candidates you’re reviewing. When you don’t know their names or anything personal about them, it means you focus on their merits and there’s no risk of bias.

  • Allow for alternative qualifications and experience

Generally, there is a bias towards candidates with degrees and qualifications. But degrees are expensive, and many people can’t afford to do an unpaid internship. So, it’s good to also consider other methods of training and experience, like apprenticeships. This helps remove obstacles for people who couldn’t go to university.

  • Test skills directly

Education and experience doesn’t make someone right for the job. That’s when tests come in handy. Send everyone a task to complete. That way, you choose a candidate based on how successfully they perform in the task. It’s fairer and it gives you a better idea of how capable they are.

You should also make sure your recruiters know about accent bias when they’re screening candidates. Which leads onto the next point…

2. Educate your workforce

The first step to tackling any kind of bias is to educate yourself.

The Equality Act 2010 says it is discrimination to treat someone unfairly for having a protected characteristic. This includes race, religion, and sex.

Accent itself isn’t protected by law. But it could fall under race discrimination. Say your worker ‘mimics’ a co-worker’s accent. The intent may have been harmless. But if the accent has a national, racial, or ethnic origin, it could result in a discrimination claim.

Even if the accent is regional, the mimic may still cause offense. And this could lead to a bullying claim.

That’s why you need to be clear with your workforce about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. It’s a good idea to teach staff about discrimination and outline this information in an equality and diversity policy. This should also tell staff how to report an incident if they see or experience one.

3. Provide training

Setting up a policy should go hand in hand with equality and diversity training. Add this to every new starter’s induction and you can get your staff on board from day one.

Training can help staff understand their biases. And both managers and workers need to understand how bias can have an impact.

This can help create allies in the workplace. So, if your staff see accent bias happening, they can spot it and take action. This means the responsibility doesn’t solely fall on the targeted person.

4. Don’t stop there…

Being an equal opportunities employer means:

  • Constantly reviewing

Make sure your policies and processes are inclusive and always up to date.

  • Having open communication

Regularly check in with staff to allow them to offer feedback and voice any issues.

  • Calling out discriminatory behaviour

Always call out misconduct when you see it and investigate all claims.

Need to set up a policy, training plan or just get some general advice? Call 0800 029 4384 to get instant HR support.

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