The cost of language discrimination and how to tackle it

Outdated stereotypes and classist attitudes can hold back those with regional accents

Elonka Soros

Development Director and Trainer Creative Access


Is an accent a reliable marker of class? The short answer is no. Yet elitist social structure tying accent to intelligence persists today. This particularly impacts those from under-represented groups in the creative industries. A new report from social enterprise Creative Access and global PR agency Fleishman Hillard UK examines the realities of accent bias, regionality and code-switching for under-represented individuals within creative organisations.  

We know that language discrimination is prevalent across workplaces the UK, but our research revealed that it’s particularly rife in the creative industries. The Accent Bias in Britain Report: 2020 found that people ‘evaluated job candidates who spoke in a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent as more informed and more suitable for professional employment, even when speakers of other accents gave identical answers.’ When accents are used as signifiers of class, education and ethnicity, prejudice is heightened for those from Black, Asian and other racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Look around the room next time you’re at work and ask yourself: who is missing?

Elonka Soros, Development Director and Trainer, Creative Access

In an age where we’re encouraged to bring our ‘whole selves’ to work, the reality is that it’s often only acceptable to do so when you speak a certain way.

Accent bias has become exacerbated by the increase in online interviews and phone calls post-COVID. However, research by McKinsey has shown that ‘the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability’. Creative industries will only produce better, more representative work if there’s a diverse workforce behind it.

In an age where we’re encouraged to bring our ‘whole selves’ to work, the reality is that it’s often only acceptable to do so when you speak a certain way.

Elonka Soros, Development Director and Trainer, Creative Access

In our research, the majority of respondents (89%) believed that others had made subconscious judgements about them based on their accent or how they speak, compared to 65% among the general population. Over three quarters (77%) of people working in creative industries have felt they had to change their accents in the workplace.

Companies need to address accent discrimination and how it subconsciously appears in the workplace. Being curious is the first step. Here are our tips on tackling accent bias… 

Reassess your organisational culture 

Reconsider what it means to ‘fit in’ at your organisation: what do you expect from someone who’s ‘pitch perfect’ or ‘client friendly’? These biases are often unconscious and entrenched in organisational structures.

Revaluate other traditional signifiers of social class that you may be using to assess talent, such as those who have attended private school or elite university graduates. Did they get to their position by mixing in the ‘right’ circles or were they hired through inclusive recruitment practices? 

Inclusive recruitment 

Look around the room next time you’re at work and ask yourself: who is missing? If there’s a lack of diversity in accents, what could you do to make the workplace more welcoming to those from different backgrounds or regions of the UK?   

Suggested standout: ‘Code-switching is defined as the process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting’ 

Among respondents from the Creative Access community, 81% report that they code-switch for a variety of reasons, including a wish to be taken more seriously, to be seen as smarter or as having a higher social class.  

Bearing this in mind, the language and imagery we use whilst hiring and in interviews important. You should:  

·       Avoid jargon and corporate language 

·       Be transparent (be clear around salary and progression) 

·       Let the candidate and your employees know that you’re committed to diversity and inclusion through your actions as an organisation 

It’s equally important to ensure people aren’t being held back from mid to senior level roles too. According to respondents from the Creative Access community, nearly two in three (60%) agree they have had to change their accent to progress their career (and this is also true among one in four UK adults at large). 

PR and Comms  

A staggering majority (89%) of those in PR and comms agree that “your accent and use of language affects how you’re seen in PR and comms”. This is compared to 41% of working UK adults who agree in other sectors.  

Set aside time with these team members to explore language discrimination and how they use language in the content they produce. It’s not only relevant for your team, but also for your business. If you work in a creative sector like advertising, you want to make sure you’re not resorting to the use of stereotypes in your adverts, such as perpetuating that a northern accent will connote ‘friendly, salt-of-the-earth folk’.  

Think about the implications of words like ‘thick’ or ‘common’, as well as ‘articulate’ or ‘eloquent’; these terms can be loaded with classist and racist connotations.   

Seek and listen to feedback

Creating an inclusive culture at work means having open and honest conversations. Make employees aware that that if they are offended by something or uncomfortable, that there is space for their criticism or concerns. You can conduct regular anonymous surveys on workplace culture and then determine what can be improved.

Guest Author

Elonka Soros

Development Director and Trainer Creative Access


Elonka Soros is Development Director and trainer at diversity social enterprise Creative Access. She's an established senior leader and diversity specialist with extensive experience in broadcast journalism, programme production, new audience development, diversity action and community engagement. She works in the creative and cultural sectors with businesses and NGO’s throughout Europe to provide strategic insight and develop collaborative projects that increase reputation, participation and inclusion in services.