Dialect and accent based discrimination, innit?

Written by
Changeboard Team

18 Jan 2013

18 Jan 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Electability and recruitability

In the US, Senator Harry Reid's recent remark about President Obama being electable partly because he had "no Negro dialect" (unless he wanted one) caused a furore. Here in Britain, (despite Government attempts to foster social mobility) accent and dialect remain obstacles to well-paid jobs. 

Accent stereotypes - obstacles and assumptions

Admittedly, there has been a shift in attitudes. Regional accents are no longer generally frowned upon as they once were by employers of managerial and professional staff. Although a very strong accent which is difficult for others to understand will obviously be a disadvantage, so may an excessively "posh" accent for some jobs – although not at the top end of the market.

Some accents stereotypically fit with certain kinds of job. For example in practice a Glaswegian accent such as Sir Alex Ferguson's might well be an advantage for a candidate applying for a job thought to require a tough, no-nonsense management style, but not for one thought to require silky diplomatic skills, regardless of the actual attributes of the candidate.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most acute obstacles to well-paid jobs are faced by those from minority backgrounds where the first language spoken at home is not Western European and those (mainly younger) people whose speech is excessively "street". It appears that an ability to switch from one accent or dialect to another, attributed to President Obama, is indeed an advantage. I am reminded of my father, who was a grain merchant dealing with farmers on both sides of the Scottish border. As a child listening to him speaking on the telephone, I could always tell which side of the border he was doing business with, as his accent subtly changed.

Discrimination of accent, dialect or social class

There is currently no UK legislation specifically outlawing discrimination on grounds of accent, dialect or social class. Although there were rumblings about social class from the Labour Government in a White Paper (“New Opportunities”) published in January 2009, nothing has come of it so far. It is perhaps unlikely that a Conservative Government would consider introducing any such legislation unless forced to do so by the EU.

However, existing discrimination legislation has been and will continue to be used by candidates and employees who feel that they have been unfairly treated as a result of their accent or use of language. The most common tack is based on race discrimination, such as in Meshram v Talk Talk [2007], where an Indian-born call centre trainer who had spoken English since the age of two was replaced in his position on the grounds of his accent not being sufficiently English. Meshram succeeded in his race discrimination claim in the Employment Tribunal. He was quoted by The Times as saying:

“I know I speak with an accent but my job … was to give technical advice, not to give expertise on how to communicate. It was an embarrassing and humiliating experience.”

Meshram’s comment gets to the nub of the issue. Under the current legislation, claims of this kind will usually be brought as indirect discrimination claims. This gives employers and recruiters the opportunity to argue that any indirect discrimination which did occur was justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. If Meshram’s job had been to train Indian call centre workers on how to communicate with British customers, the result of his case may well have been different, as the employer would have had a reasonable argument that a clear English accent was a requirement for the job, as a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of improving the ability of the call centre workers to carry out their jobs.

Hundal v Initial Security Ltd [2006] is an example of a case going the other way. In that case, the employer was able to show that its treatment of Hundal was genuinely due to his difficulty in clearly enunciating English when part of his duties required him to communicate by telephone. It probably did not help Hundal’s case that the Employment Tribunal itself had difficulty understanding him.

Further risks on use of language

In England, English regional accents will not usually form the basis of a race discrimination claim, assuming that the comparison is with the way in which a “well-spoken” English person would speak. However, Scots, Irish and Welsh accents could form the basis for such a claim. In view of the risk of discrimination on grounds of accent or dialect, candidates would be best advised to moderate their use of language as best they can to the circumstances of the job. 

And we may yet see age discrimination claims based on the use of language which is “down wid da kids” – to which a succinct defence might read:

“Yeah right. Whateva. LOL ; ) ”.