Training for employers
This page offers a 15-minute interactive tutorial to raise awareness of accent bias and help reduce its effects in hiring.
The tutorial will cover: why accent differences exist, what accent bias is, what accent discrimination is, and provide evidence-based advice on how to minimise it. You will also be informed about current attitudes to accent in Britain and whether or not such bias necessarily leads to discrimination when job candidates are evaluated.
Why do accents exist?
All humans have an accent in any language. Everyone’s speech becomes more like that of those they interact with over time. Accents often reflect differences in where people grew up, their family’s social class, their age, their peers, and the school they went to.
Standard accents, such as Received Pronunciation, are often considered prestigious because a specific region or social group has acquired power. They are not standard because the sounds they use are better. For example, not pronouncing the ‘r’ in a word like ‘park’ is considered standard in the United Kingdom, but in the United States this is often heard as ‘working class’ or ‘regional’.
When our brains and mouths get used to a certain way of pronouncing sounds, it is difficult to change. It is just as hard for a working-class person to adopt a middle-class accent as it is for a middle-class person to adopt a working-class accent. This is therefore an unrealistic expectation in hiring, and particularly unfair when a person has had limited access to the desirable accent.
Watch the short clip above to hear a prominent political advisor in the United States describing her accent as a natural consequence of her social background, but also how bias against it threatened her life outcomes.
What are accent bias and accent discrimination?
The video in this step introduces the problem of accent bias. Watch it first!
All humans have biases – simplified ways of thinking when we need to process our thoughts quickly. Accent is no exception: we all have automatic associations with accents, and we might use those to make snap judgments about a person’s social background. These automatic stereotypes and preferences, whether positive or negative, are referred to as accent bias.
Such biases are natural, but when we rely on these simple stereotypes to judge unrelated traits, like intelligence or competence or trustworthiness, our cultural baggage becomes discriminatory.
The accent we grew up with is unrelated to the knowledge and expertise that we acquire. If we judge people by their accent, we risk discriminating against well-qualified people because of their social background.
This is when accent biases become accent discrimination.
Where can bias arise?
Language-related discrimination can happen at many junctures along a career path.
A person can be discriminated against before they even have a chance to speak. A study found that CVs with ethnic minority names received significantly fewer replies from potential employers than identical CVs with typically white names.
Professionals may also discriminate against certain accents in interview. 76% of employers admitted to discriminating against candidates by accent in one survey. This particular juncture is the focus of this training.
Even if recruiters make an effort to disregard accents during an interview, other things (how they respond to an answer, their eye gaze, smiling, casual remarks, cultural references) can subtly, often unconsciously, convey bias and undermine the confidence and performance of a candidate.
Finally, an applicant may clear all of these hurdles and get that job, only to find that interactions in the workplace are a source of difficulty, impeding their ability to rise in seniority in the firm. Lawyers have themselves reported such issues informally.
Am I biased?
This Quiz helps you get a feel for the challenge of ignoring your automatic accent associations while listening to a job candidate. Try it out!
The quiz is an opportunity to reflect on your own natural accent-based stereotypes and whether it is easy or difficult to set them aside when there are serious consequences for the person speaking.
The quiz will open in a new window. Once you have completed the quiz return to this page to complete the training.
How bad is the problem?
How much accent bias is there among the British public today? And do professional recruiters allow it to interfere with their assessment of a person’s knowledge and skills?
The video in this step tells you what our research found. Watch and find out!
The bad news: Attitudes found 50 years ago remain today. We found that exactly the same accents continue to attract high prestige and the same urban working class and ethnic accents attract low prestige. This shows us that stereotypes about accents persist in British society today. But it doesn’t tell us whether there is actual accent discrimination: Someone may dislike an accent but never let that affect their judgement of a person’s competence at work.
Better news: When we looked at whether accent stereotypes affect people’s sense of whether a person is professionally competent, by playing a real voice interviewing for a job in an elite profession, we found that the differences in accent ratings were much smaller. Working class London accents were still judged as sounding less professional overall however, with more bias found among those over the age of 40, based in Southern England, and of higher social classes.
The good news: We asked professional lawyers and recruiters to judge how good candidates’ answers were. Each accent delivered subtly better and worse answers, so the task was not easy! Legal recruiters didn’t let accents interfere with their judgements at all. They listened to what the person said, not how they said it. Recent diversity awareness and training at major law firms may have supported this outcome.
Our project shows that accent bias is widespread, but people in positions of power have the capacity to resist its effects.
What can be done?
Our study has shown that accent bias is still prevalent in British society, so recruiters’ attention should be drawn to the risk of such biases influencing hiring outcomes.
We tested a number of training interventions and found that the simplest intervention—simply raising awareness about accent discrimination—was the most effective tool in reducing accent-based judgements in professional hiring contexts.
This evidence suggests that it would be useful to show recruiters and HR teams the brief wording below before they interview candidates, to reduce their reliance on accent to judge competence:
Recent research has shown that, when evaluating job candidates, interviewers in the UK may be influenced by the candidates’ accent. In particular, they tend to rate candidates who speak with a “standard” accent more favourably than candidates who speak with “non-standard” accents. This is an example of “accent bias”. The focus should be on the knowledge and skills of the candidate, not their accent. Please keep this in mind when assessing the suitability of candidates.
Recruiters should also be reminded that candidates’ accents are the natural result of their social background. It is difficult for anyone, of any social class, to change their accent. A person may also not wish to reject their social identity in this way. Candidates from under-represented social backgrounds have often already encountered other obstacles to social mobility, and accent bias can mean double discrimination for them. It is therefore always good practice to focus narrowly on the key criteria for the position