Employers currently have a duty to protect workers from harassment and victimisation that is based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or age. Now there is a suggestion that accents should be added to that list.
A study by the University of Manchester found that many people feel pressured to change their speech patterns while at work. Dr Alex Baratta, who conducted the study with students said, ‘Clearly, most people modify their accent not because they lack pride in it, quite the opposite in fact. It’s actually because they fear the negative perceptions others might have of them if they don’t.’
High Profile Examples
This is borne out by the example of a teacher interviewed for the research who revealed that he had been told by an Ofsted inspector to sound more southern while working in a school in Berkshire. Steph McGovern is a business journalist working for the BBC. She also has a northern accent and has said that colleagues treated her as “too common for telly” because of her accent. She wrote in the Radio Times that she didn’t get promoted because of the way she spoke.
Why it Matters
While some people can change the way they speak quite happily, for others it can cause distress. Dr Baratta said that while playing down their regional accents is a common practice, ‘we should not assume that it is accepted by all speakers without issue. As part of my ongoing research, many participants see accent modification as synonymous with selling out and a clear threat to their sense of self.’ You can read more about Dr Baratta’s research on his specially set up website here.
Other academics have pointed out that dialect helps people to feel they belong in their communities. It is becoming more popular rather than less. Dr Baratta insists that “Any form of discrimination, including accentism, shouldn’t be tolerated in an inclusive society.”
In anticipation of any change in the law, you and your team could take care that the accents of interviewees are not considered while recruiting, and that all staff are aware that accentism will not be tolerated. Your local bookkeepers could also be keeping an eye on this area and may volunteer information on developments as they arise to ensure you stay up to date.