HR professional, managers and leaders often ask us how they could possibly tell someone “you need improve your English pronunciation and change your accent”. They struggle with how to bring up this delicate topic in a way that respects diversity. Well…there is a great deal of controversy around accent reduction, and many think it is wrong to eliminate accents. We understand this point of view — accents are beautiful; they showcase our diversity and should not be eliminated. Having said this, when an accent is affecting how easily someone is understood or impacting self-confidence, accent reduction may be needed and even welcomed.
So…how do you broach this topic when you see someone struggling to make themselves understood at work or avoiding discussions due to an accent? Should you ignore the situation or bring up their English pronunciation? Our experience indicates there isn’t one perfect way to talk about accent reduction, but that it is important to discuss the subject if you are responsible for the employee. If someone’s accent is affecting their ability to do their job or holding their career back, don’t ignore it. Tell the employee what you’re noticing and find out how the employee feels and what they want. You’ll be surprised — most employees know if their accent is affecting their work. They are constantly asked to repeat themselves and see the confused looks on their colleagues faces. These employees often appreciate the opportunity to discuss the issue and find solutions.
In general, if you bring up accent reduction in the same way you introduce other professional development opportunities (e.g., learning how to use new software), things will go well. There are many ways to have a productive conversation about accent reduction and English pronunciation, and we hope these tips can help you along the way. Remember, it’s often best not to avoid this important topic — take a deep breath and go for it!
- Respect: Let the employee know that you respect their culture and appreciate the positive impact their diversity has on the company.
- Honesty: Tell the employee that you are struggling with talking about this sensitive topic and that you don’t want to offend them.
- Kindness: As with all topics that involve feedback, make sure you’re gentle and kind. Think about how you might like to hear feedback like this. For example, you could say “You’re so good with people and we really want to see you succeed.”
- Value: Make sure the employee knows that you value their contributions. Give them specific examples of what they’ve achieved.
- Ask: Ask the employee how speaking at work is going and really listen to what they tell you.
- Feedback: Give them gentle feedback on what you are noticing. For example, you could say “I noticed at the meeting that you didn’t speak up, even though you have great ideas.”
- Choice: Don’t tell someone they need to change their accent. Instead, ask them “do you want to change your accent?”. Give the employee a choice, and support their decision either way.
- Positive: Be positive. After all, this is an opportunity for new learning and could have many benefits for the employee.
- Re-assure: Make sure the employee knows their job is not in jeopardy.
- Solutions: Find solutions by letting the employee know about effective programs and professional development opportunities, such as the ones at Change Your Accent.