Can accent discrimination become a legal reality?

While some accents relate to race (a protected characteristic), within the UK there are large regional variations. Should these also be protected?

The comments made by Fiona Hill, a Geordie who testified before the US impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump on 21 November 2019, reverberated in the media.

Hill, who emigrated from the UK to the US in the 1980s, suggested that had she stayed in the UK the fact that she has a “very distinctive working-class” Northern accent would have impeded her professional advancement.

Class discrimination in the UK:

How do you define social mobility?

Social mobility rises up the business agenda

How employers can get involved with social mobility

The same week Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) published a study into the way people judge accents and found that attitudes have hardly changed from 50 years ago.

Those with 'working-class' accents face discrimination from potential employers, while so-called ‘posh’ accents continue to attract prestige.

A posh accent is seen as an indicator of higher social class, better education and higher intelligence.

While it is generally accepted that accent discrimination exists on some level, it is not currently protected by discrimination legislation.

Arguably, the closest ‘protected characteristic’ to accent would be race or nationality, but while that would cover individuals of different ethnic or national origin it does not cover people with different accents from within the UK itself.

Being Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish may attract some protection – but being Geordie or Cockney will not.

The ACAS guidance on equality and discrimination at work states that the protected characteristic of race does not cover more ‘local’ or ‘regional’ distinctions, and gives the example of an employee working in the south of England who feels they are being treated unfairly solely because they are ‘Geordie’ as being unlikely to succeed in a claim of race discrimination.

Surely treating an employee less favourably because they come from a different region of England and speak with a different regional accent is not any less wrong than treating an employee less favourably because they speak with an overseas accent, but such a claim would currently not succeed.

This would equally apply to someone being denied a workplace opportunity for sounding like they come from a 'working class'.

But if accent is not protected by the race discrimination provisions could it be a standalone protected characteristic?

The term ‘protected characteristic’ is not defined, but the core idea behind it is that it allows for the protection of a group of individuals by reference to a uniting characteristic which, as Lady Hale commented in a House of Lords case in 2006, is either immutable or so fundamental to human dignity that a person should not be compelled to change it. Most would accept that accent goes to the core of a person’s identity.

No-one should have to change it and in most cases it would be impossible to do so. There is therefore no reason why accent should not be protected.

When judging people based on an accent often the bias is unconscious. Where the bias is on the basis of a protected characteristic it can be discriminatory.

It can demonstrate itself in recruitment when, for example, the applicant has not been progressed to the next stage after a telephone interview because of assumptions made about their race based on their accent.

A way of tackling accent discrimination is to acknowledge any unconscious bias and offer training to staff, especially those who sit on recruitment or promotion panels.

The overall aim for employers should be to make workplaces more inclusive even if the protection does not currently exist in law.

One saving grace of the QMUL study was that younger participants did not seem to judge accents differently at all, which suggests that attitudes are changing.

By contrast, those above the age of 40 judged speakers with a working-class London accent to be less competent and less hireable, even though all candidates gave exactly the same responses.

Hill was not accepted by Oxford, but later went to study at Harvard followed by a prestigious career.

Overcoming bias is important if an employer does not want to miss out on talent and a number of studies have shown that having a diverse workforce has known benefits for businesses.

Aleksandra Traczyk is a solicitor at Winckworth Sherwood