Accent bias and risks for employers
Market Insight 26 September 2023 26 September 2023
UK & Europe
A recent employment tribunal decision, McCalam v Royal Mail Group Ltd, has again highlighted issues around accent bias in the workplace. This claim was brought by a Scottish postman who alleged he had been subjected to race discrimination because his English manager couldn’t understand him.
Issues in relation to accent bias were highlighted in the Sutton Trust’s report "Speaking Up: Accents and social mobility". The report, which focused on the importance of improving accent and socioeconomic diversity in the workplace, notes that accent is “arguably the primary signal of socioeconomic status” and highlights the potential discrimination risks that can arise from accent bias.
This update considers the discrimination risks and diversity issues connected with accent bias, and the steps employers should consider taking to create an inclusive workplace which improves the socio-economic diversity of their workforce.
Although accent itself is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, race, which expressly includes nationality and ethnic or national origins, is. It is therefore unlawful to discriminate against or harass a person on the grounds of their “foreign” accent. This is already part of the Acas guidance on race discrimination, which uses the example of a French worker being made fun of because of her accent to show how racial harassment might arise.
This protection against race discrimination also applies across the different UK countries, so it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their Scottish, Northern Irish, Welsh or English accent. This form of accent bias has arisen in a few tribunal cases.
In the recent case of McCalam v Royal Mail Group Limited, the Scottish claimant alleged that his English manager had repeatedly said he couldn’t understand him and screwed up his face when speaking to him. Mr McCalam recorded a conversation in which his manager said to him “I can’t understand you”, as well as “there’s a few Scots I don’t understand and Kevin Bridges is one of them”. However, the tribunal found that his manager couldn’t understand Mr McCalam because he talked too fast and had a tendency to speak faster when he was irate, which was exacerbated because of the effects of a stroke he suffered which impacted on his speech. His race discrimination claim therefore failed.
In another race discrimination case, Kelly v Hoo Hing Ltd, the claimant complained that a colleague had mocked his Irishness by imitating his Irish accent, gesturing, and dancing like a leprechaun. The tribunal concluded that the colleague’s actions made the claimant feel humiliated and violated his dignity, and his harassment claim succeeded. Furthermore, it concluded that this conduct was direct discrimination, saying “it would be difficult to argue that mocking somebody by adopting a stereotypical accent and set of gestures was anything other than inherently discriminatory”.
However, as the Sutton Trust points out, accents aren’t just relevant to a person’s race and socio-economic status. Employers should be mindful that accents can also be an indicator of other aspects of a person’s social background, including age, disability, gender and sexuality, which are all protected characteristics under the Equality Act.
Diversity and inclusion
The report concludes that despite less than 10% of the population speaking with the Received Pronunciation accent (think the traditional “BBC news reader”), Received Pronunciation is “the dominant accent in positions of authority across the media, politics, the civil service, courtrooms, and the corporate sector”.
Other key findings in the report are:
- For those in senior managerial roles from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, 21% were worried their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future
- 29% of senior managers from working class backgrounds have been mocked for their accent at work
- 46% of employees reported being mocked or criticised in a social setting due to their accent
- Younger employees are more likely to have “accent anxiety”, in other words concern about their accent impacting their future prospects
This issue, therefore, goes beyond compliance with equality laws and into important issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace which continues to be a hot HR topic.
Recommendations for employers
The Sutton Trust makes a number of recommendations on action to tackle accent bias in the workplace, that:
- This should be seen as an important diversity issue, alongside EDI initiatives relating to race, disability, gender, and sexual orientation
- This should be part of a wider strategy to improve socio-economic diversity in the workplace
- This should include providing recruiters with training on accent bias
- Employers should also be aware of accent bias arising in work-associated social settings
- Employers should aim to have a range of accents within their organisation
- There should be no implicit expectation that professionalism is signalled by sounding like a person from a certain region or socio-economic background
The report also stresses that instances of accent discrimination should be taken seriously by employers.
What this means for employers
It is clear from the Sutton Trust report that class and its traditional signifier, a person’s accent, continues to impact workplace dynamics and employees’ career advancement, and is a source of anxiety for many employees. The report provides useful learning opportunities for employers that are seeking to build a more inclusive workplace, where social class differences aren’t prominent. Ensuring that staff know that their accent isn’t an issue at all, and that they are part of a diverse workforce with a mix of accents across all levels of the business will make for a happier and more productive workforce. In addition, it will result in fewer grievances and disciplinary procedures, and reduce the risk of discrimination claims being brought on the basis of accent bias.