A recent study conducted by the Sutton Trust revealed more than 45% of employees in the UK have been mocked, criticised or singled out because of their accent. For centuries, accent prestige has been a significant issue in the UK. The disproportionate representation of individuals who speak in Received Pronunciation (otherwise known as the "Queen's English") in positions of authority has led to the entrenchment of unfavourable stereotypes – related to intelligence, education and socioeconomic background – about those who speak with regional accents, particularly from the North or the Midlands. Consequently, the Sutton Trust found that 23% of professionals are self-conscious about their accent and 19% of employees are concerned about the impact of their accent on their ability to succeed in the future. Prospective or current employees who are treated less favourably by an employer on the grounds of accent bias may, in certain circumstances, be able to bring discrimination claims. It is therefore important that employers are aware of this issue and consider positive action to tackle accent prestige within their workplace.
Accent bias and the law
Discrimination claims must relate to a protected characteristic, of which there are currently nine, including race, sex and disability. A person's accent in itself is not currently a protected characteristic.
As remarked by Lady Hale in Secretary of State for the Home Department (Respondent) v. K (FC), for a characteristic to gain protected status, it must be "either immutable or so fundamental to human dignity that a person should not be compelled to change it". Accents can form a crucial part of our identity and generally do not change throughout a person's lifetime. In recognition of the significant issues related to accent bias, some have argued in favour of extending the legal protection available.
If the relevant accent is a national one and/or has racial or ethnic origins, discrimination and harassment claims related to an individual's accent can be brought because of the connection to the protected characteristic of race. It is also possible that a connection between a person's accent and their sex or sexuality could open the door to discrimination claims on the grounds of other protected characteristics.
In the recent employment tribunal case of Mr J. Kelly v. Hoo Hing Ltd, Mr Kelly's colleague, Mr Montgomery, mocked his nationality by imitating his Irish accent and dancing "like a leprechaun". In its analysis of the legal test for Mr Kelly's claim of harassment related to race, the tribunal found that, while Mr Montgomery had intended for his behaviour to be humorous, viewed reasonably it had the effect of deeply offending the claimant and violating his dignity. Accordingly, Mr Kelly's claim was upheld. In line with Section 212(1) of the Equality Act, since it had found in Mr Kelly's favour on his harassment claim, the tribunal could not also uphold his claim for direct discrimination because it was founded on the same facts. However, Judge Massarella commented that had he been required to do so, he would have upheld the direct discrimination claim. He remarked: "It would be difficult to argue that mocking somebody by adopting a stereotypical accent and set of gestures was anything other than inherently discriminatory."
The position is not as straightforward in the case of regional accents. In such cases, reliance on the protected characteristic of race is likely untenable. That being said, discrimination against employees on the grounds of their Geordie or Glaswegian accent is just as likely to cause offence as discrimination because of a Scottish or French accent and may result in valid claims for constructive or unfair dismissal.
So, what should employers do to tackle accent bias in the workplace?
Accents can also be intrinsically linked to socio-economic status. Discriminatory or harassing behaviour on the grounds of accent bias can therefore pose clear social mobility issues. Socio-economic status is, like regional accents, not currently protected under the Equality Act. However, for so long as employers hire certain prospective employees over others because of conscious or unconscious assumptions they make based on candidates' accents, those from other socio-economic backgrounds will continue to encounter barriers to professional success. Those employers may also continue to struggle to retain talent from a range of backgrounds. The benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace culture have long been acknowledged and are a compelling reason for employers to actively tackle prejudices based on accent. For example, 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.
Indeed, as remarked by Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Sutton Trust: "Talent in Britain is spread evenly, but opportunities are not. That means there are talented young people with every kind of accent but, for many, they need to work harder to prove their worth, just because of how they speak."
To overcome these inter-related issues, the Sutton Trust has urged employers to recognise accent bias as an important diversity issue, which must be approached alongside efforts to reduce other forms of discrimination. It recommends that tackling accent bias should form part of a wider strategy to improve representation from all socio-economic backgrounds. There are various steps employers can take to reduce instances of accent prestige in their workplace. For example:
Improve understanding and awareness
Employers could provide training to all employees, especially those entrusted with recruitment decisions, on recognising their own accent biases, and how they can counteract any related assumptions they may make about prospective employees, colleagues and clients. Topics could include breaking down the long-entrenched stereotypical association of professionalism with accents from a certain region or socio-economic background.
Further, the Sutton Trust found that if recruiters, immediately prior to recruitment exercises, read a short text regarding the importance of focusing on the knowledge and skills of candidates, instead of their accents, this had a significant impact on reducing accent bias. This recommendation can be easily and efficiently implemented at a low cost to employers.
The Sutton Trust has also said 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." Employers should ensure employees are aware that any discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated at work related social events.
Improve accent variety
Poignantly, in its report, the Sutton Trust advised that while training is important because it raises employers' awareness of their own accent biases, in and of itself it cannot eliminate that bias. The Trust remarked: "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". In turn, it is important for employers to respond meaningfully to training by aiming to hire candidates with a variety of accents. Employers should also not require employees to speak with a particular accent, such as the "Queen's English".
Employers can also seek to ensure their recruitment opportunities are available and accessible to candidates from a variety of regions, countries and socio-economic backgrounds. This could extend to offering outreach programmes focused on local schools and communities (for example, mentoring or work experience schemes aimed at students and working-age individuals, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Employers can also offer, and emphasise to prospective employees that they can offer, support throughout their career to ensure those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are represented at senior levels of their business.
Improve data measurement
As we discussed in a previous article entitled "Exploring mandatory and voluntary pay gap reporting in the UK", data reporting along gender, race, socioeconomic and, now, even accent-based lines plays a crucial role in helping businesses to improve the diversity of their workforce. Employers cannot manage what they cannot measure.
Therefore, employers could follow the lead of companies such as PWC, who have implemented the Social Mobility Commission's recommendation of collecting data on their workforces' socio-economic backgrounds, by asking four simple questions. For example, asking employees about their eligibility for school meals and the occupation of the main household earner when they were 14 years old as part of the employer's standard confidential equal opportunities monitoring survey can provide clear insight on the composition of their workforce. Employers can use the data collected to improve their recruitment tools, and also to create internal benchmarks which help to monitor the progression of employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds. These tools can play a crucial role in supporting these employees' professional success.
Accents can be a crucial component of who we are. They give clues about our identity, where we come from and the environments in which we grew up. Given the inherently personal nature of accents, even absent any legal obligation, employers should not mock, imitate or make unfavourable jokes about employees based on their accent or allow such behaviour to go unchallenged. To do so could cause offence and embarrassment and has the potential to result in costly claims against the business. At the same time, by meaningfully tackling accent bias within their workplace, employers can positively contribute to improving social mobility in the UK and ensure that their businesses attract and retain the best talent.