Does Your Accent Hinder Your Job Prospects?

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By Jas Singh

It’s a great era to be involved in business.

The best thing about the next generation of millennials is that they are exposed to this great diverse planet we live on as soon as they learn how to swipe the lock bar on an iPhone. Using my own children as examples its great to see them embrace other cultures faster than we ever did. The other day I even caught my son watching a clip of the Lion King – in Mandarin. (I think).

The business world is trying it’s best to create equality. From proactive emphasis (at long last) to hiring more women in leadership roles to ethnic diversity quotas it’s a proud time to be called a businesswoman or businessman.

The only thing is the pace of change – which is painfully slow. And truthfully, it is my experience that it is the more experienced end of the workforce (my age group included) that seems to be holding everyone up. Our kids have no issue hiring the fast-talking Gujarati student who wears a head scarf – it’s the more experienced age group that looks twice.

It’s been my experience that perhaps one major area of discrimination that massively effects the outcome of the hiring process but that is hardly never discussed are accents.

In an age where we have finally managed to start addressing beliefs, cultural background and even appearances does your accent really effect your chances of getting hired?

Put simply, yes.

Accents speak louder than words

When I am blogging, I can go to our academic research database hit query and usually get hundreds, often thousands of supporting studies. From how many siblings you have to the effect diet has on your success at work scientists have studied pretty much anything you can think of.

Surprisingly there was very little on accents. However the studies that have been conducted overwhelmingly prove that we form irrational judgements on other people’s accents – especially in the workplace.

Accents trigger our emotional responses as listeners and unless we are aware of this bias we begin to make premeditated decisions about others – with no evidence or rational whatsoever. Even more conclusive is that often non-traditional accents are grouped together as negative “clusters”. For example in certain surveys 70% of participants believed that Hispanic accents in the US and “Cockney” accents in the UK would cause them to have doubts about employing someone.

Often these biases are subconscious and in fact in the above study mentioned participants were even shocked by their own actions!

But the truth is in many situations, like hiring, accents do speak louder than words.

Stereotyping

The problem is not necessarily the accent itself – it is our interpretation of it. For most of it’s history, the world has been a pretty predictable place as far as communities have been concerned.

Over time, things were pretty constant and most people with the same accent lived close to each other and often had similar lives. Initial change was gradual and opportunities were quite limited. The first opportunities for Indian graduates to come to the West was indeed for medical or IT jobs. The posh British accent was indeed often a sign of a privileged upbringing.

But as is often the case, the world has changed but our views and prejudices need to catch up. Depending on our upbringing, society and previous experiences we tend to stereotype.

We are trying to build Star-Trek organisations, with Dinosaur beliefs.

Breaking down this barrier is key to hiring success.

Issues with Image?

My personal experience is that the negative impact of accents whilst hiring comes to the fore in “front office” jobs. Companies are usually more than happy to hire smart, hungry and quite simply the best candidates for the vast majority of jobs – except the ones where they are dealing with the customer, client or general public.

Especially when contact with the customer can be short but crucial (such as over the phone). One area I have noted this perhaps more than anywhere else is sales – a massively un-proportional number of sales people who sell into their local market are native to that particular country or even region. It’s almost as if foreign language speakers, even if they are based full time in that country and speak the local language perfectly are saved to sell into their native region.

But maybe the most concerning thing of all is that this actually seems to work. An accent shouldn’t seem to matter but it does. It seems to be a part of life.

Conclusion

An accent is part of who you are. It’s part of your story, your life and can never be a bad thing.

Hiring managers need to make sure they are aware that an accent like everything else about a candidate is going to create an impression. It requires skill, practice and bravery to admit this bias – so that one can look past this and concentrate on hiring the best person for the job. The one’s who do this first will create a better world for everybody.

Will you help create a better world?

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