Accentism: is it time for protected status?

Daniel Stander deliberates whether accent-based discrimination in the workplace should be banned under the Equality Act

Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

A recent study from Northumbria University has suggested that people with strong northern English accents are viewed as ‘less intelligent’ and ‘less educated’ than their southern counterparts. The study, titled Speaking of Prejudice, which was reported in The Times, concluded that accentism causes “profound” social, economic and educational harm for those with ‘denigrated accents’ in the UK. Accentism is a term used to describe any situation in which a person feels as though they have been unfairly treated, judged or commented on because of the way they speak, write and communicate.

This latest research continues a consistent theme with other recent studies, including the government’s own Social Mobility Commission, which published a report stating that those entering the civil service from vastly underrepresented disadvantaged backgrounds need to master “unwritten rules” to get ahead, including adopting the “right accent” to be promoted through the organisation.

Kent Business School has also found that social mobility, ie the link between an individual’s occupation and income and their social strata in society, is likely to generate class-based work-life conflict. 

The current legal landscape

Under the Equality Act 2010, protection already exists for workers who are discriminated against because of their race, which includes national origins. For example, if a Scottish worker’s accent is mocked by English colleagues, they would be able to bring a claim for race discrimination accordingly. However, surprisingly no such legal protection exists in the case of more local or regional origins, which would include those with socioeconomic variations. 

Acas guidance gives examples of an employee working in the south of England who feels they are being treated unfairly solely because they are a ‘Geordie’, or an employee treated unfairly because they are a ‘southerner’ with an Essex accent working in the north of England. In those scenarios, neither employee would be likely to succeed in a claim for race discrimination. 

Change on the horizon?

Over the past decade, there has been increasing calls for debate as to whether accentism should be protected in the workplace in the same way as racism, sexism and ageism. The Social Mobility Commission is now arguing for new legislation to make socioeconomic background a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. 

Given the emerging consensus on the workplace challenges posed by socioeconomic diversity, it may not be too long before accentism is given protected status in the UK. It would not even be the first move of its kind, as similar legislation to ban accent-based discrimination in the workplace was brought before the Irish Dáil in 2021. 

In 2022, it should go without saying that no one should be maligned or treated as being lesser because of their accent or stereotypes about their background. Expanding the protected characteristics under the UK’s equality legislation would also help towards reflecting changing social norms and, by protecting those with different socioeconomic backgrounds, it means society backs the promotion of more psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces, where everyone feels like they belong.

Notwithstanding any legislation being forthcoming under this parliament, employers can still take the lead by implementing robust policies on equal opportunities and harassment, making the business’s values and expectations clear and embedded within its culture. HR can also work to raise awareness and understanding within their organisations as to this important issue, and to implement unconscious bias training to help break down any implicit bias individuals may have about certain accents in the workplace. 

Daniel Stander is an employment lawyer and certified mental health first aider at Vedder Price