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Why tackling accent bias matters at work

Wall Street banks and big City law firms among employers addressing potential discrimination

One 2006 survey found 76% of employers confessed to discriminating against candidates based on their accents. Photograph: iStock

If the polls are to be believed, the UK parliament will look quite different after the July 4th general election. But there might also be a big change in the way it sounds.

The last election in 2019 produced a parliament dominated by Conservative party MPs and 69 per cent of them spoke RP, received pronunciation, or BBC English, the accent long deemed the most prestigious in the UK.

Among the Conservatives’ Labour Party opponents, however, only 37 per cent spoke like this.

With some polls predicting a Labour landslide, the halls of Westminster could soon ring with very different sounds.

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Yet one aspect of parliament will probably stay the same. If history is a guide, the new crop of MPs will still sound posher than the people who elected them, because less than 10 per cent of the British population speak RP.

I was surprised by this number, probably because I spend a lot of time listening to British newsreaders, ministers, executives, lawyers and other members of the professional classes, where RP is rampant.

But I was given all the figures above by a reliable source: a professor of linguistics I came across recently named Devyani Sharma.

She is one of the academics behind Accent Bias Britain, a research project set up in 2017 to examine accent discrimination in the workplace and she has some unexpectedly good news.

Employers may still judge the owner of a working-class accent more harshly than an RP speaker but the project’s work suggests the impact fades once people are made aware of the problem.

More saliently, the number of top employers asking for accent bias training is increasing to the point that Sharma, who does corporate workshops based on the project’s research, is struggling to keep up with demand.

When I spoke to her, she had just done one session for a big Wall Street bank and another for a top City law firm — not her first. The civil service, consultancies and charities have also made requests, which have lately come in weekly.

“We’ve had a very unexpected level of uptake and interest,” she told me. “I think that there is a mood to address this issue.”

The training tools Sharma and her colleagues have developed are not complicated. They show how we naturally make snap judgments about one another, and our respective social classes, as soon we hear someone speak.

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That’s not unique to the UK. But as the tools reveal, the British public’s view of a good and bad accent has not changed much in the past 50 years.

Received pronunciation is still by far the highest-rated accent. French, Scottish, New Zealand and Australian accents all make it to the top 10, while Birmingham is rated lowest in a bottom 10 that includes African-Caribbean, Indian, Liverpool and Cockney accents.

One 2006 survey found 76 per cent of employers confessed to discriminating against candidates based on their accents.

Pointing out these findings appears to be the simplest way of countering biases that, as Sharma tells companies, can lead to smart people leaving or not being promoted to suitable jobs.

When it comes to hiring new employees, the research suggests it helps to simply tell recruiters and HR teams that there is evidence interviewers may rate RP-speakers more favourably than others and to encourage them to focus on job applicants’ knowledge and skills.

Speaking of knowledge, the research also shows something useful for non-RP speakers: if they speak confidently and knowledgeably they can reduce or even banish accent discrimination.

Employers can of course only do so much. The data Sharma sent me about MPs’ accents was commissioned for a 2022 BBC programme, How to Crack the Class Ceiling, hosted by non-RP-speaking presenter Amol Rajan.

The documentary painted a gloomy picture of the fears young working-class people had that their accents would block them from jobs in the City, civil service or the law.

Those fears are well founded, more so for some than others. One telling piece of data about the new 2019 parliament showed RP is far more prevalent among minority ethnic MPs, especially those with an Asian background, than white MPs.

This may not change markedly after this year’s election. But here’s hoping the growth of awareness about accent bias helps to dent it in a lot more workplaces in future. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024