Quarter of employees have had their accents mocked at work, survey finds

Employers are being warned of legal implications of accent bias, as senior managers also report concerns about career progression

Credit: Tara Moore/Getty Images

A quarter (25 per cent) of UK employees have faced jokes at the expense of their accent at work, a survey has found. 

Research by The Sutton Trust revealed that a third (33 per cent) of senior managers have anxiety that their accent may compromise their ability to succeed at work. 

The study, Speaking up: Accents and social mobility – which broke results down socioeconomically and by region – also found that senior managers of ‘lower social grades’ were more likely to experience anxiety (21 per cent compared to 12 per cent for those from ‘better off’ families). 

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Additionally, just under a third (29 per cent) of senior managers from working class families said they had been mocked in the workplace for their accent, compared to 22 per cent with a ‘better off’ background. 

Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, said employees “mimicking accents” could land employers in several sticky legal situations – chiefly, harassment and bullying. “The employer may be liable in a claim for harassment and/or discrimination on the grounds of nationality or ethnic and national origins if their accent is from a different country,” explained Sunderland. 

“However, if the accents are regional ones rather than national ones, then employees can claim bullying and those employed for more than two years can leave and bring a claim for constructive dismissal, saying that the employer has not taken all reasonable steps to prevent this,” she said, adding that employers needed to ensure policies on unacceptable behaviour and accent mimicking were clear as these could constitute gross misconduct. 

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But the report, which surveyed 1,002 later career professionals and 1,014 early career professionals, found that only 8 per cent of early professionals felt the same as senior managers about their accent halting their career, which indicated “some effort” in the workplace to remove accent-based bias. 

However, among northern early career respondents, there was higher anxiety about accents impeding career (34 per cent), and a higher percentage who reported their accent being mocked, criticised or singled out in the workplace (40 per cent). 

The Sutton Trust’s founder and chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, said talent in Britain was spread evenly, but opportunities were not. “That means there are talented young people with every kind of accent, but, for many, they need to work harder to prove their worth, just because of how they speak,” he said.