What did you say? Accent bias in Workplace
Does the law protect an employee from being mocked for their regional or national accent? Does it make a difference if their accent is from Liverpool or Australia…Somerset or Africa?
Research recently published by the Sutton Trust has found that 25% of professionals report being mocked, criticised or singled out in workplace settings because of their accents, 46% of employees report higher levels of being mocked for their accent in social settings and 19% of employees reported concerns that their accent could affect their ability to progress in their roles.
It is prudent for employers to note that this research highlights various risks which may arise if employers do not support employees experiencing similar issues, including the risk that they may have to defend a costly Tribunal claim.
In the case of Sheffield CC v Norouzi it was found that an employee had faced racial harassment where they frequently had their accent mocked and mimicked by other employees. It is key to note that employers may be liable for acts of harassment committed by an employee throughout the course of their employment, thus exposing them to the risk of costly claims and reputational harm. As a result, employers should take reasonable steps to ensure that employees are not experiencing degrading, humiliating or unwelcome behaviour as a result of their accent by dealing with incidents responsibly and by promoting an inclusive workplace culture.
In their report, The Sutton Trust recommend taking action to tackle accent-related biases and prejudice by readily spreading awareness of the implications of such practices within and beyond the workplace. This may be achieved through regular Equality and Diversity training of employees and management in order to promote Equality Act compliant practices and attitudes. We offer in-house Equality Training (either in person or remotely) to provide line managers with an overview of what discrimination is to enable them to identify issues as and when they arise and escalate them as appropriate. Please get in contact with our team should you wish to discuss our training courses in more detail.
It is important for employers to be aware of other discrimination risks throughout the recruitment process where a recruiter may have a bias against certain accents. Employers should take care to ensure recruiters and hiring managers are trained to reduce bias in relation to accents in order to mitigate the risk of allegations of race discrimination throughout the recruitment process whilst also promoting diverse hiring practices as recommended by The Sutton Trust report. Tech savvy employers who utilise voice-testing technology or AI based recruitment tools may indirectly discriminate against candidates where the software makes assumptions regarding someone’s nationality or race based upon their accent or fails to accurately record their responses so it would be prudent to review recruitment practices regularly to ensure bias is reasonably minimised.
Whilst The Sutton Trust Report heavily references the negative consequences of ill-treatment of different accents regionally across the UK, it is interesting to note that the law does not provide a similar level of protection for regional accents. The ACAS guide states that the law on race discrimination does not cover regional origins within with UK and the case of Ryan v R Robertson & Son Ltd found that a manager’s act of imitating the employee’s Liverpudlian accent was not a discriminatory reference to national/racial origin. However, this does not suggest there is no legal risk in cases where an employee is being mocked for a regional UK accent. Employees with more than two years of service who have resigned as a result of unaddressed accent-related bullying may seek to pursue a constructive unfair dismissal claim which can be costly to defend. Furthermore, employees are undoubtedly likely to perform better in a supportive, inclusive environment where they aren’t subject to ill-treatment arising from their accents.
Please get in touch with the Employment team if you have any queries regarding discrimination or harassment in the workplace