‘Hierarchy of accents’ still exists in job interviews

12 Dec 2019 By Siobhan Palmer

Study finds bias towards ‘standard’ English speech, while ‘working class’ voices are penalised

People still have biases when it comes to the way job applicants talk, research from Queen Mary, University of London and the University of York has confirmed. 

The study, which explored attitudes to different British accents and their effect on an individual’s perceived suitability for a job, found there is still an “established and enduring hierarchy of accents” in the UK. But individuals were shown to be able to suppress their biases when they were encouraged to be aware of them. 

The researchers surveyed participants about their opinions of accent labels such as ‘cockney’ and ‘Queen’s English’, and assessed how people responded to others’ actual voices, measuring reactions by age, social class and personal beliefs.

Although the gap between the most and least well-regarded accents had decreased compared to earlier studies, participants still showed a bias towards middle-class, ‘standard’ English speech, while penalising accents the study described as ‘working class’ and ‘ethnic London’.

However, the study found recruiters in the legal profession to be more nuanced than the general public, implying that professionals may be able to ‘switch off’ their biases in certain contexts; for example, when interviewing candidates for employment.

Dr Dominic Watt from the University of York says the study’s results “give grounds for optimism, in that although accent-based prejudice seems to be all around us in this country, it seems to be possible for people in positions of power to put these biases to one side when it really counts”.

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