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‘Accentism’: Discriminatory?

On these British shores we speak in a bewildering multitude of accents, patois’, regional syntax and colloquialisms; it has ever been thus.

How one is wished a good morning by another varies entirely on the basis of the geographical location. In Yorkshire you will get a “eh up luv”, while in Nottinghamshire it might be “alright duck?”

Such speech designates those utilising it inextricably to the region from which they are originally from or have at least resided in for sufficient time to absorb the lingo. Many view their accents as badges of pride showing their heritage, however a recent study by the University of Manchester shows that a large section of society tones down or alters entirely their accent in certain situations; chief amongst these are job interviews or otherwise important occasions related to work.

Employers in the UK are of course heavily regulated as relates to discrimination on the basis of the protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act 2010 (“EQA”) in addition to being required to monitor ethnic, religious and gender representation among their workforce. However there is no such legislation in respect of regional accents or origins.

An off-shoot poll by ITV wherein employers were asked if they had made discriminating decisions on the basis of regional accent, returned a result of 80% in the affirmative. It is clear then that while not protected by legislation, in practice this is a form of discrimination that occurs every day.

Much of this treatment appears to stem from the ever present North/South divide. The research showed that strong Liverpudlian, Birmingham and ‘Cockney’ London accents came off badly, whereas the “Queen’s English” or region-less dialect that was at one time so prevalent on the BBC, came off as sounding highly intelligent and “proper”.

Of course it should always be substance and not form that are the focus in a meritocratic work environment, though it appears that through generations of conditioning, these perceptions over regions are very much here to stay for the time being.

Ultimately the prejudicial attitudes held in respect of such dialects could not be said to be directed towards the people speaking them, but rather this view is derived from a historical prejudice towards that area as relates to where the person judging the speaker themselves is from.

The irony of all of this is that it has resulted in a culture of ‘reverse-snobbery’ wherein there is a backlash in certain areas in social situations against those that do speak the ‘Queen’s English’. For all the strides made in respect of equality then, we apparently remain to some degree a somewhat clannish and tribal Island.

Conclusion

As to whether there will ever be any legal provisions to protect employees or prospective employees from discrimination on the basis of regional accent, our predication would be a somewhat steadfast no.

The legislative winds are not blowing in that direction at the moment, and the argument contrary to bolstering the EQA in this fashion would likely be a very practical ‘floodgates’ argument. 98% of the UK has a regional accent in some form and to allow actions for the full raft of claims available under the EQA for discrimination on this basis would result in a huge tide of litigation.

Employers therefore are free to continue to profile employees and prospective employees on the basis of accent, while employees with such accents are left with the options of either speaking them aloud with pride, toning them down or alternatively doing their very best impression of Stephen Fry/The Queen.


Please note that the information in this blog is to provide information of general interest in a summary manner and should not be construed as individual legal advice. Readers should consult with SCE Solicitors or other professional counsel before acting on the information contained here.

Samira Cakali

Samira Cakali is a pragmatic and approachable solicitor advocate with extensive contentious and non-contentious experience in the fields of employment law as well as civil litigation, within a range of commercial businesses from SME’s to multinationals as well as senior executives.

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