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The language of discrimination: class barriers and accent bias

Posted on November 3, 2022

Whether intentional or not, accent bias is alive and well in the UK. Creative Access’ upcoming research in partnership with PR agency Fleishman Hillard found that over three quarters (77%) of people working in creative industries have felt they had to change their accents in the workplace. Meanwhile 89% believed that others had made subconscious judgements about them based on their accent or how they speak, compared to 65% among the general population.

The Accent Bias in Britain Report: 2020 found that people “evaluated job candidates who spoke in a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent as more informed and more suitable for professional employment, even when speakers of other accents gave identical answers.” This highlights that whilst accent discrimination is of course part of a greater problem surrounding social inequality and classism within the UK, our findings illustrate how this inequality is reflected within our creative industries. It is vital that employers working to become more inclusive address accent discrimination – and its wider implications of classism – within the workplace. Here are our tips on tackling accent bias…

Look at your organisational culture

Take a fresh look at who you consider a ‘fit’ for your organisation. Create an environment where all qualified applicants are welcome, not just those who have gone to elite universities or speak a certain way. This also means extending our understanding of what ‘qualified’ means – can this incorporate skills over a university education for example?

If there is a lack of diversity in accents within your organisation, what could you do to make the workplace more welcoming to those from different backgrounds or even regions of the UK?

Whilst recruiting talent from communities under-represented in the creative industries and breaking down the barriers for entry into the creative industries is extremely important, the need for inclusion extends to mid to senior levels as well. You need to provide the opportunity to for them to develop and step up. Examine the concept of what it means to be ‘pitch perfect’ or ‘client friendly’. We know that clients are increasingly looking for and expecting diversity to represent their companies and engage audiences – offer your employees an equal chance to do this.

Inclusive recruitment

Look into your HR and talent development decisions and processes – are they fair?

Bearing concepts such as code-switching in mind, it’s important that we think about the language and imagery we use whilst hiring and in interviews: avoid jargon and corporate language, be transparent (for example, be clear around salary and progression), and let the candidate and your employees know that you’re committed to diversity and inclusion through your actions as an organisation, not just by what you say. By demonstrating an inclusive environment in the hiring process, you’re showing your potential future employee what it could be like to work at your organisation. The creative industries, which create the books, plays, films and TV we all consume, need to represent all of society, not just a small proportion – this is an employer’s chance to reach talent from backgrounds that may not ‘traditionally’ work in the sector and broaden their perspective as well as their creative output.

Be aware of the language you use

Do your current staff feel as though they can be their authentic selves at work? This can include everything from not mocking the way people pronounce things, or where they’re from, to being mindful of the language you use when describing someone’s accent. Think about the implications of words like ‘thick’ or ‘common’, as well as ‘articulate’ or ‘eloquent’; these terms can be seen as loaded with classist and racist connotations.  

The majority of our participants (89%) believed that others had made subconscious judgements about them based on their accent or how they speak. The first step is to accept we all have unconscious bias and become aware of this. This can be further worked on through setting up initiatives like workplace training, running workshops with external speakers, and setting up internal working groups to hear new perspectives which challenge your thinking.

Seek and listen to feedback – take action where necessary

Creating an inclusive culture at work means being open to having honest conversations. You must make employees aware that that if they are offended by something or uncomfortable, that there is space for their criticism or concerns. You can conduct regular anonymous surveys on workplace culture and from here, you can determine what can be improved, and most importantly, respond to the feedback.

It is clear that people from under-represented backgrounds in terms of ethnicity and socio-economic background feel the effects of accent discrimination disproportionately to other groups. Ensuring that members of your team feel able to come to you with a problem around discrimination – and to know that problem will be heard and taken seriously – is vital.

Take action with Creative Access training:

Creative Access’ has a number of comprehensive training programmes, delivered by a highly experienced team, which enable employees to thrive in a diverse and inclusive workplace. Find out more about our bespoke employer training sessions on class in the workplace, unconscious bias, inclusive recruitment and more here.

If you’re a small organisation or an individual employee looking to learn more about the topics, see our upcoming open training workshops here.