Accent bias as a potential career hindrance was an unlikely, but interesting, side-issue to emerge from US foreign-affairs expert Fiona Hill’s 21 November testimony to the House Impeachment Hearings. [1]

In her opening remarks, Hill – who was born and raised in County Durham – explained that the seeds of her credentials were sown during an academic exchange to the Soviet Union in 1987. “This was a turning point for me,” she said. “An American professor who I met there told me about graduate-student scholarships to the US. The very next year, thanks to his advice, I arrived in America to start my advanced studies at Harvard.

“Years later, I can say with confidence that this country has offered me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America.”

Just a few days later, Devyani Sharma – sociolinguistics professor at Queen Mary University, London – published an opinion piece for The Conversation, [2] highlighting the results of recent research her team has undertaken on the very topic of accent bias. The primary aim of the research, based on input from more than 1,000 individuals, was to see how far perceptions had moved on from a 50-year-old study by psychologist Howard Giles. [3]

At a broad, social level, Sharma writes, “we found that exactly the same accents continue to attract high prestige – received pronunciation, the Queen’s English, French-accented English, Edinburgh English, one’s own accent – and the same accents continue to receive low ratings, particularly ethnic minority accents (Indian) and historically industrial urban accents (Cockney, Liverpool, Essex, Birmingham)”.

While the team found that accent bias was somewhat less pronounced in the professional world, particularly the legal profession, anecdotal evidence from that sector showed that issues remain.

One lawyer told the team that he had been informed at interview stage that he would require elocution lessons before he could be introduced to a client. Another said: “I hate to admit it, but I’m sure that almost every week my assessment of people I have only just met is affected by their accent. I will assume that someone with a posh accent is better educated, more intelligent and reliable than someone with a less smart accent. I should emphasise that I don’t think it’s right to do this – it’s just one of a series of snap judgements I make about people I meet.”

Sharma writes: “If British employers use accent to guess at a person’s abilities, this will limit the chances of candidates who are already socioeconomically marginalised. It also prevents that accent from becoming better represented in professional sectors, perpetuating bias.”

How can leaders tackle this bias and prevent it from interfering with their hiring decisions?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The Sharma research, which replicates to some extent the approach of the Giles study, further reinforces the view that our processes for identifying, recruiting and managing talent are inherently flawed, because there is so much unconscious bias built into the decisions we make along the way. Name-free CVs and the use of artificial intelligence in interviews are just two routes at our disposal for complementing the recruitment process with methods designed specifically to remove unconscious bias from the equation.”

Cooper notes: “I’m aware that I mentioned in a previous blog about AI in interviews that I have one or two qualms with such technology, particularly in the context of how we set out to train these systems. If we simply pile in loads of historical data on decisions we’ve made in the past, there’s a risk that we could taint the AI platforms we adopt with the very same biases we’re trying to get away from. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognise, and push back against, the mindset that inserts bias into our decisions – whether it’s on the basis of gender, ethnicity, accent or any other trait. We’re making assumptions about people, and they are deep rooted and incredibly difficult to shift.”

She adds: “Rather than focusing our attention on how to ‘fix’ the individual, we must look at how to improve our processes by acknowledging, in the first instance, that these biases are happening and presenting us with issues. In parallel, as leaders and managers we must engage in a consciousness-raising effort to make our colleagues aware of how ridiculous, in many ways, these biases actually are.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity and understanding HR

Source refs: [1] [2] [3]

Image of Fiona Hill courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

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