Brace yourself, research on accent bias is coming

In the current issue of Human Resource Management Review (27/3) Marcello Russo, Gazi Islam and Burak Koyuncu bring our attention to a phenomenon I have written about earlier– how language, and more specifically non-native accents could affect our thoughts, feelings and actions in the workplace. Moving towards a diverse workplace often involves bringing people with diverse linguistic backgrounds together. With English as lingua franca this is not problem at all or is it?

accent bias

In my blog post, I have focused on how unreasonable language requirements and our attitude to dialects and accents can undermine even the best hiring processes. I argue that a unreasonable focus on language skills leads to missing out on competent employees.

The authors of “Non-native accents and stigma: How self-fulfilling prophesies can affect career outcomes” argue that biases are well-known and -investigated when it comes to for example gender or race. However, language biases are on the research agenda of only a few in the field of for example I-O psychology, social psychology and linguistics. With an increasing diverse workplace, language and non-native accents might become an important factor for hiring and career progress decisions. But how exactly do we react to non-native accents? Russo, Islam and Koyunco present a framework which takes into consideration the reaction of managers as well as of speakers themselves to speaking with non-native accents.

According to the framework, managers can react cognitively (experiencing low fluency, developing low expectations) affectionately (being less positive in social situations), and behaviorally (developing a controlling leadership style). The speaker can react affectionately (feeling excluded and devalued) as well as behaviorally (disengaging from complex tasks and showing avoidance). They present 13 hypothesis of which nine are describing negative effects and four mediating effects of non-negative accents. In an interesting discussion, the authors highlight that accents can have prestige and that there might be more prestigious accents than others. Thus, the prestigefulness of an accent might moderate some of the proposed negative effects. Also, the exposure to non-native accents might moderate negative effects. The same might apply for goal-orientation, the nature of the job and organizational ethnocentrism (the “individual tendency to judge other cultures by relying on the values and standards of one’s own culture”).

This is one of the most interesting research frameworks I have seen so far when it comes to non-native accents and I can’t wait to see where we move from here. What can we take from us already today? Language in the workplace matter and employees and managers need to be trained for accent diversity as much as they need to be trained for other facets of diversity. Fostering diversity includes fostering socialisation in the workplace, something which is not accomplished by simply paying for language classes. Until today I haven’t seen any diversity training which includes the diversity of accents, dialects and languages. Maybe a new idea for a blog entry?


Full reference of the article

Russo, Islam, & Koyuncu. (2017). Non-native accents and stigma: How self-fulfilling prophesies can affect career outcomes. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 507-520.

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