Is Your Accent Right for the Job?
In a job interview, the impression you make is likely at the forefront of your mind—you might agonize over your outfit, or you might pre-prepare and rehearse answers to a string of common questions. But what if, when you open your mouth to speak, you are evaluated on something you cannot change (at least not very easily): Your accent.
Several studies suggest that how we speak plays a critical role for recruiters in deciding who to hire. In fact, the majority of studies tell a consistent story: When two equally qualified job candidates differ in accent, the candidate who speaks with a standard accent—that is, the accent that is generally accepted and institutionalized as the way of speaking a given language (for example, American-accented English in the United States)—is typically hired for the job over the candidate who speaks with a non-standard accent.
Where previous studies have not told a consistent story yet is why.
What Drives the Accent Bias in Hiring Decisions?
My colleagues and I explored the two broad arguments which have emerged as to what might drive the accent bias in hiring: The first is that non-standard accents can impede communication and by extension can make employees less effective in their job. The second is that non-standard accents signal 'otherness' and candidates are devalued as a result.
Disentangling these two explanations is not easy because people typically don't want to appear openly prejudiced. When it comes to accent bias in hiring, therefore, it could be that people rationalize their decision to not hire a non-standard accented candidate with what appears to be a communication-focused reason (such as "they're difficult to understand"), when in fact they may be driven (perhaps unconsciously) by broader prejudices.
To disentangle these explanations, we combined the results from all previous studies which have examined hiring decisions between candidates who differ by accent. This included studies from six different countries: Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, United Kingdom, and United States, involving 4,576 participants.
Job candidates spoke with a large variety of accents, including a variety of standard English-speaking accents (e.g., American-accented, British-accented, and South African-accented English), European-accented English (e.g., Dutch-accented, French-accented, and German-accented English), Asian-accented English (e.g., Chinese-accented, Indian-accented, and Japanese-accented English), and Mexican-accented English. The studies also featured standard German and other European-accented German (e.g., Turkish-accented German).
Across the 27 studies included in our review, there was accent bias in hiring decisions: Candidates who spoke with standard accents were consistently favored for jobs over candidates who spoke with non-standard accents.
Contrary to the idea that accent-based hiring biases may be due to genuine differences in communicative abilities which interfere with a candidate's ability to perform the job to a high standard, we found that ratings of each candidate's comprehensibility (defined as how easy they were to understand) were not related to hiring decisions.
What was related to hiring decisions, however, was judgments of the candidates' perceived social status: We found that candidates who spoke with non-standard accents were rated as less competent and less intelligent than candidates who spoke with standard accents. The bigger the perceived difference between candidates on perceptions of social status, the more prejudice we found in hiring decisions.
We also explored whether the accent bias in hiring was more severe when candidates were female relative to male. The results were striking: Women with standard accents were favored as job candidates over women with non-standard accents, but male candidates were judged equally regardless of their accent. Why might this be? One possibility is due to differing societal expectations for communicative abilities. For example, research suggests that people who speak with non-standard accents are typically rated as lower in communication skills relative to people who speak with standard accents. This might work against non-standard accented women more than men given the societal stereotype that women are generally skilled communicators.
We also compared candidates who differed by regional accent—for example, American-accented English versus British-accented English—and found there was no prejudice. There was, however, strong prejudice between candidates who differed by foreign accent, such as American-accented English versus Chinese-accented English.
Together, our findings highlight that hiring decisions appear to be influenced by broader (and perhaps unconscious) prejudices that rise to the surface based on how one speaks.
The Take Home Message
With a spoken interview—either in person or on the phone—being one of the most common assessment methods in recruitment, the way one speaks undeniably plays a critical role in determining hireability. Whether people are interviewing potential job applicants, or simply meeting someone for the first time, vigilance to prejudices based on how others speak must be kept at the forefront of one's mind.
For Further Reading
Spence, J. L., Hornsey, M. J., Stephenson, E. M., & Imuta, K. (2022). Is your accent right for the job? A meta-analysis on accent bias in hiring decisions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672221130595
Jessica Spence is a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Queensland researching how intergroup dynamics shape social decision-making.