Once again, foreign accents in the workplace was in the news. In a recent radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr. Andrew Timming, an experimental psychologist at the University of Western Australia, laid out how the image one projects impacts employability — and a large part of his discussion centred on accents. His recent research indicates that an ethnic or foreign accent might work against people, and that an unconscious bias against accents may exist when companies hire.
In his study, Dr. Timming had people with different accents apply for a job using the exact same script. He found that individuals with clear and “native” accents were rated as having higher employability for jobs requiring customer interaction. Individuals with foreign accents were rated as having higher employability for non-customer, or back of the house, jobs. It’s easy to come away from the interview thinking, “This is so wrong — how could they?”
But it’s not always so simple. In this day and age, it should be a given that HR professionals should be aware that unconscious bias — including bias against accents — exists and is a real problem. But what happens if a brilliant doctor can’t be understood because of an accent? Should a hospital hire the doctor if their communication skills are not strong enough to convey critical information? What if you’re the patient? And if the hospital doesn’t hire the doctor, should they tell the doctor why they weren’t hired? Should the doctor have the right to choose whether or not they want to modify their accent? And if the doctor chooses to change their accent to find a job, should they be judged for this?
As you can see, the answers sometimes aren’t black and white. But without well meaning and open conversations about accents, people won’t have the opportunity to learn or grow. There are hidden costs when we feel like we can’t talk about accents. Without an honest discussion with the doctor, for example, how will that doctor ever secure employment and what is the impact on patient care if the doctor is hired? And what is the longterm cost of not talking it over? Well, this would be the loss of realizing the full potential of the brilliant doctor. For starters.
This is just one example of one profession in which the answers aren’t clear cut. Listen to the podcast, think about the complexities, be mindful of bias, and open to choice. Encouraging you to join the conversation.