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  • Writer's picturePeter Hogan

The importance of accents

Small cues play a big part in hiring with employers favouring those perceived to be in a higher social class.

Interviewers perceive the social class of candidates based on the very briefest exposure to speech, according to Yale University research.

Tests showed convincingly that the way we say the words and, from, thought, beautiful, imagine, yellow, and the are a clear give-away about the rung we occupy on the ladder of life. Just playing recordings of these words spoken in different accents was enough for listeners to make decisions about the class, background and even the likely job of the person speaking.

So is the cv ignored if the accent doesn’t fit? A UK study found that people tend to like people who sound like themselves and researchers noted that the same effect of favouring those who remind us of ourselves was seen with regard to gender and race. Consciously or unconsciously speech patterns and our look are sometimes used to judge the fit, competence and starting salary of prospective job candidates.

This isn’t just about tests in a lab. In a large scale survey, 28% of Britons said they felt they have been discriminated against because of their accent and 80% of anonymised employers admitted to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents. Another study found that it could take just 30 milliseconds of speech (that’s enough to say “hello”) for listeners to identify a person's background as being different from their own and make judgements about the kind of person they might be.

The findings also suggest that the perception given after a brief encounter is potentially a strong causal factor in the propping up of economic inequality and the reinforcing of class boundaries. None of this means that all employers show bias, discriminate or favour a particular social group. However for the potential staff member with a particular accent or from a social, economic or ethnic group different to that typical in the organisation, it might make them worry that their chances are blighted from the outset.

Does this happen where hiring staff in schools? We want our schools to be inclusive, diverse places where young people are exposed to adults from a variety of places and backgrounds. If those doing the hiring are showing bias in recruitment there is a risk that a school could become a more homogenous place as well as one that limits the opportunities of well-deserving staff just because of their accent or background.

If pronunciation inhibits prospects should potential employees polish up their accents to try to fit in? A candidate putting on an act to get a job feels like a horrible, defensive, defeatist and backward step. Instead, maybe presumptive employers should work a bit harder and open up their minds and not just their ears?

Peter Hogan


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