A recent study from the University of Manchester has suggested that the effects of “accentism” (discrimination against people with regional accents) could be far more widespread and harmful than previously suspected. Reportedly one in three Britons have suffered negative feelings towards themselves, with those with strong regional accents feeling pressurised to “posh up” when talking in the workplace. Of the 98 children, students and staff in the North West of England who were questioned, many described feelings of “anger”, “annoyance”, and even “disgust” with themselves for altering their natural way of speaking in social situations to create a better impression, noting a sense of “self-betrayal” and “selling-out”. 

As a result of the study, Dr Alex Baratta, linguist and lecturer in English language, has called for “accentism” to be tackled in the same way as racism, ageism and sexism, describing prejudice against certain accents as the “last taboo”. He says people are made to feel “fake” when they feel forced to change their way of speaking (for example, by ensuring they do not drop H’s and T’s) and he has urged employers to ensure job applicants’ accents are not used against them in the workplace. The study follows an earlier consideration by linguistic students in 2013 which found that David and Victoria Beckham have changed the way they speak to sound “less working class”. 

Simon Hammond, psychologist of the University of East Anglia, notes that discrimination on the ground of someone’s accent is associated with many social judgments about class and education. Professor Clive Upton of the University of Leeds feels that “variety of accents is on the increase”, with people increasingly viewing dialect as “a signal of belonging”. So, with an increase in speech variation coinciding with a greater appreciation of the potential for accent-based discrimination, what protections are currently in place to prevent discrimination in the workplace? Should these be widened to protect against the damaging effects of “accentism” and what steps should employers be taking to tackle “accentism” at work? 

“Protected characteristics” 

Under the Equality Act 2010 workers are protected against discrimination (both direct and indirect), harassment and victimisation at work based on one or more of nine “protected characteristics” (PCs): age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion/belief, sex and sexual orientation. 

Over recent years, debate has emerged as to whether certain other characteristics should be “protected” under UK equality law. For example, in March 2014, a case before the Court of Appeal considered whether “immigration status” should constitute a “protected characteristic”; it was concluded that it should not. 

Most recently, changes have been made under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to allow for “caste” as an aspect of race to be introduced as the tenth PC. Until such time as this change takes legal effect (anticipated in 2015), the issue of whether “caste” is protected under current law remains unclear: while a recent employment tribunal claim indicated that caste can amount to an aspect of “race” for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 (although this is being appealed), other tribunals have concluded that the fact the Equality Act has not yet been expressly changed means “caste” is not yet legally protected. So, assuming “caste” will soon be expressly protected, what is to stop those with regional accents (be it Liverpudlian, Mancunian, Lancashire, Geordie, Cockney) being afforded this same legal protection? 

Were “accent” to become an additional PC, the following would be consequentially unlawful: 

“Direct discrimination” on the basis of someone’s accent, which would arise from treating someone less favourably than another person because of their accent, or because they were thought to have (perceptive discrimination), or because they associated with someone with, that accent (associative discrimination). 

“Indirect discrimination” which could arise where an employer adopted a provision, criterion or practice (“PCP”) which disadvantaged people with a particular accent. Indirect discrimination can be justified in certain circumstances. 

“Victimisation” would arise where an employer treated a worker badly because he or she had made, or people thought they had made, a complaint about discrimination or had given evidence in a discrimination case relating to their accent. 

A claim of “harassment” would arise where an employee received unwanted conduct relating to their accent, which had the purpose or effect of violating their dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual. 

Fair recruitment process 

The Equality Act is broad in scope. As such, a business must take care not to discriminate in the “arrangements” it makes during recruitment (e.g. they should consider the format and content of application forms and job specifications, the location and timings of any interviews and bear in mind the physical arrangements for any meetings), as well as ensuring they do not discriminate against potential applicants by the manner in which a job is advertised. For example, a statement in a job advertisement that “Gypsies and Travellers need not apply” could amount to direct discrimination on the basis of race. It is important to remember that an employer can be vicariously liable for acts of employees involved in a recruitment exercise, as well as for any consultants or employment agencies it instructs to act on its behalf. 

Tackling discrimination in the workplace 

Businesses should take various steps to minimise the risk of discrimination issues arising in the workplace. Indeed, as well as circulating robust policies to employees on equal opportunities and harassment, making clear what behaviour will and will not be tolerated, every business should encourage an open forum and implement effective procedures for staff to raise any concerns they may have about the way they or others have been treated. It is not enough to simply have written policies gathering dust; policies must be properly implemented (with enforcement taken via a clear disciplinary procedure in the event of breach) to maximise the chance of issues being dealt with swiftly, thereby avoiding a full tribunal claim.  Of course, irrespective of whether “accent” ever becomes a protected characteristic for the purposes of the Equality Act, all employees should be treated equally at work.  While undertaking anonymised equal opportunities monitoring and providing focussed training for those managers can present some up-front costs from an administrative and financial perspective, adopting a robust approach to minimising all forms of discrimination in the workplace can reap significant rewards for any business in the long-term. 

Article by Felicity Staff, Associate, Employment and Pensions, Charles Russell LLP