Guest contributor Paulina Dąbrowska brings her experiences to life, explains that not all accents are equal and encourages us to embrace linguistic diversity.
I remember the feeling of anger and shame when a manager suggested I take up English classes. I had lived in the UK for four years, had a few years of experience in international companies and was doing a master’s degree in London.
Nonetheless, at work, I repeatedly was given tasks below my experience. I was hired as a Project Manager, but I was made to run office errands instead. Although these responsibilities were not in my job description, I was too frightened to mention them in my probation meeting. At the time, I was contributing a third of my salary to pay university fees, and I could not afford to be without work. One day, I burst into tears and complained to my line manager. A week later, I was dismissed for “not fitting the company culture”. Disclosure: I do not include this company in my CV or LinkedIn profile.
That was just one of my experiences of accent bias. It took me years to regain confidence and realise that this upsetting event was due to misperception rather than my underperformance.
The UK Research and Insights industry employ approximately 64,000 workers. According to the annual MRS D&I report, fewer than 50% of participants believe that everyone in the sector has the same opportunities to progress and are rewarded fairly regardless of their social class, national origin, ethnicity, disability, or age. Although accents are not protected under the Equality Act 2010, it is often associated with characteristics such as ethnicity, social class, or race, leading to discriminatory beliefs.
With remote working, many of our jobs no longer have geographical boundaries. While it has offered companies access to a larger talent pool and helped to diversify their workforce, it also brings a new set of challenges. In the climate of “the great resignation,” it is worth looking closely at whether our industry is truly inclusive to non-native speakers.
Not all accents are equal
Accent plays a crucial role in the way we perceive others, according to some studies, it is more important than appearance . We evolved to assess threats quickly, and if someone sounds different from us, it could signal a member of an outgroup. Also, it takes more cognitive effort to understand unfamiliar accents, which may lead to the less favourable perceptions of the foreign speakers. That bias is so deeply rooted that even babies show preferences for their native language .
Yet not all accents are equal. The most esteemed English accents belong to the western native English-speaking nations dominating mainstream culture: Australia, Britain and the USA. In contrast, African American English is often perceived as inferior and stigmatised .
Why should companies care about accent bias?
In a professional setting, accent could impact how we perceive employees’ credibility, expertise, and competency. Several studies reveal our tendency to take “shortcuts” in our judgment and link non-native speakers with negative stereotypes, making them less reliable  and truthful .
It means that many suitable candidates do not even get through the door. Studies in the US and the UK show applicants with non-English sounding names received a significantly lower call back. They have to send an average of 60% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a person with a name of British origin. In market research, some recruiters admitted that companies are hesitant to hire non-British researchers because they do not understand the “cultural context”.
But even if recruiters are making efforts to reduce the bias at the interview stage, the problem can persist past the hiring stage.
People with foreign accents are more prone to social exclusion as colleagues often gravitate towards similar people. In some cases, this leads to distrust and discrimination.
A recent story in the headlines was about a British Pakistani transport worker in London whose manager kept him out of conference calls .
One researcher with over ten years’ experience heard things no native speaker would ever hear. She gave examples of how a colleague asked her during a call with a client: “Do you understand what they’re saying?” and in meetings frequently repeating what she just said in other words, as if it needed translation. This kind of behaviour is not just undermining, it hinders professional progression in client-facing roles.
Embrace our linguistic diversity
It would be hard to find a British company without non-native speakers. They make its culture more diverse, bringing new ideas and perspectives. The fact that they have learnt English as a second language makes them more adept communicators, which means more empathy towards other foreign English speakers and better adaptability to various cultures. It is an invaluable asset in dealing with international partners and conducting market research in emerging markets.
What actions can we take to minimise the effects of accent bias?
- Acknowledge it at the hiring stage- being aware of the potential for accent bias can reduce discrepancies in the rating of candidates with different accents.
- Exposure to an accent can increase trust  – creating opportunities for diverse teams to work together can create shared culture regardless of their origin.
- Become a better communicator:
– use plain English to ensure common understanding
– summarise key points and actions in writing
– allow non-native speakers to talk without interruptions
– rotate team members chairing reoccurring meetings
– pay attention to body language
- Be curious – our job is to ask questions, so try to find out more about the people who sound different to you.
The list above is by no means non-exhaustive, and I would welcome your ideas! What are your best practices to tackle accent bias?
If you wish to share your stories of accent bias, please get in touch with me on LinkedIn.