Accents in the Workplace

Accents in the Workplace

Should your employee work on their pronunciation clarity at work when English is their second language? Can you even ask them to do that? Absolutely not! Get some strategies and learn more about accents in the workplace.

Accent: “A distinctive way of speaking associated with a particular group of people, typically based on differences in phonology or intonation across geographic regions or social groups” (Deprez-Sims and Morris, 2010.)

Or, simply – Someone who sounds different to you. Accents in the workplace should not be a setback. In fact, does this even beg to question? Not to us. If you have ever wondered about the impact of accents in your workplace, you better keep reading. Let’s explore this topic, in full transparency.

accents in the workplace

Do Accents Get in the Way at Work?

Global connection is easy to get these days. Speaking to people on the other side of the globe is now commonplace even, expected at work.

This factor, alongside our growing multicultural community, shines a light on our fast evolving need to adapt our surroundings, ideals and mentality. In today’s diverse working environments, it’s time to shift subconscious prejudice.

Encouragingly, workplaces are employing individuals from overseas more and more. This helps broaden a company’s global reach. With a multicultural environment comes diverse ethnicities, new perspectives, skills and ideas. What is not often discussed is the new sound scape we are all working in. Have you ever thought about the copious amount of accents this provides?

The impact of an accent on someone’s ability to enter or progress in the workforce is not usually noted out loud.
This topic has large implications. Individuals from varied backgrounds will provide competitive insights into company expansion and growth. Global experience and multilingualism will guarantee this. However, many companies fall short. Employment discrimination means this human resource is often under-utilised. Negative bias about accent causes weak career progression, workplace bullying or meritless recruitment.

Should your employee feel sidelined because of how they speak?

Employers frequently contact us looking for communication training for their employees. We get a lot of questions about whether we recommend employees work on their professional communication or instead if English pronunciation training would be a better option.

“Will it help reduce my employee’s accent?”

Employers hope to assist their colleagues’ intelligibility and improve their effective team communication skills.
At Cadenza we work to advocate for multilingualism. Currently, across our team, we speak more than 4 languages. As a team we are transcontinental. The diversity accounts for our success. So let’s take a moment to dig deeper.

Is it appropriate to urge change for someone’s pronunciation at work?

The notion of accent reduction for employees is more often than not unnecessary and misinterpreted.

A study by Deprez-Sims and Morris (2010), states that “even though many non-native speakers are able to communicate fluently despite a noticeable accent, they may fall victim to discrimination because people may have a difficult time separating accent from communication skills”.

This tells us that non-native individuals may be powerful communicators but their team can overlook this- due to accent. Sadly, “ethnic-accented speech has been found to negatively impact perceptions of employability.” (Deprez-Sims and Morris, 2010).

Value Judgments, Accents & Bias

The Social Cognitive Theory highlights that we form impressions on people based on placing them into categories.

The Similarity-Attraction Hypothesis states that a decision maker will judge someone based on their similarity or dissimilarity to themselves. Variables such as race, age, and gender may impact on their judgement.

The same, same but different dissonance

Deprez-Sims and Morris (2010) suggest that if someone is similar to us, we give them more positive associations.
These associations can be based on groupings such as cultural background and attitudes. The person who fits our category, before we know it, is given preference over the employee who doesn’t.

This subconscious categorisation yields invalid positive or negative associations. It’s from this mindset that individuals miss out on equal opportunity for growth, development and a voice in the work environment.

Ultimately, these frameworks suggest we are more likely to form a positive bias if someone is similar to us than to give advantage to a person with differing traits.

accents in the workplace

Accents don’t always equate to reduced intelligibility

Choosing to work on your pronunciation is a very personal decision. Asking someone to change their accent is offensive and just plain disappointing. If you think your employee needs tighter communication skills, elocution and workplace communication training the better way to go. You may even find your whole team of native speakers need these too. Or a custom workshop… (We do them too).

As a community, let’s take a step back. Full disclosure. We need to take a large look at our own prejudices and listening skills when communicating and advocate for those feeling sidelined.

To communicate better, think about your own role in communication breakdowns. Poor communication is not always the other person’s fault. Even when pronunciation is hard to decode.

Let’s think. Stop right there. As a communication partner, what strategies are you using to understand your colleague?

    Accountability in communication breakdown

    Communicating effectively is like doing the tango. Yes, one person may have slightly more difficulty. Maybe they don’t know the steps precisely. In dance, we see if the experienced dancer provides a strong lead, the dance is seamless.

    Keep reading to find ways to boost your interaction in a multilinguistic workplace as an employer or leader.

    Try these Strategies

    Tips for increasing communication ease at work

    #1. Ensure minimal background noise to enhance your listening ability.

    Noisy environments force your ears to filter and respond to a large amount of content. This puts pressure on all communication situations. It doesn’t matter who you are speaking to. Planning on having a conversation with someone you find difficult to understand? Meet them somewhere quiet or ask to move the conversation elsewhere.

    #2. Ask specific questions to clarify communication breakdowns.

    If you don’t grasp the message use a specific question to get the details. This takes language flexibility. It will take more effort than just saying, “Can you repeat that.” But good communicators make an effort. So you are all over that, right?

    Don’t ask your conversation partner to repeat verbatim.

    Try this instead:

    “You were talking about this morning’s meeting. I missed what you said about your discussion with Simon over the finance component. Can we cover that again?”

    This narrows them in. It will foster more precision and possibly a reframing of the topics to get them started.
    Using this type of structure will empower your conversation partner. It gets stressful hearing a constant “What’s that? Huh, Pardon, what did you say?” Overtime, your employee can start to believe they don’t make sense. This will cause a loss of participation in the workplace. The last thing you want. You will build communication confidence if you avoid these statements.

    #3. Clarify information as soon as possible.

    Misheard something your colleague said? Ask for clarification straight away. Do this in a positive way. It is always uncomfortable to be singled out to try to explain information when we have failed.

    Find supportive statements to balance your request for clarification.
    you could try:

    “Mimi, that’s a great summary of your tasks for the week. Can you fill me in on who it was you spoke to. I didn’t quite catch that, sorry!”

    Shall we Tango?

    If workplace communication is a concern for you or your business team our high-performance communication program and workshops can assist with fine-tuning communication breakdowns. We can be the strong lead in the tango, when you don’t have the capacity or time to fill the shoes!

    accents in the workplace

    Elite Communication Training for Teams

    Arrange professional development training for your employees to build your most powerful business asset- effective communication skills.

    Cadenza is a communication consultancy that trains elite communication so that high-performing teams, leaders and organisations can gain a competitive advantage and enhance their operational efficiency, influence and engagement.

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    About the Author

    Dr Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez is a Keynote Speaker, Executive Speaking Coach, and Opera Singer who likes to play with words, sounds, and your impact.

    Her academic background is in Music Performance, Communication Science and Speech & Language Pathology. She assists executive communication clients all over the world as a communication consultant with strong expertise in CEO, Founder and Entrepreneur communication strategies.

    Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.


    • Deprez-Sims, Anne-Sophie, and Scott B. Morris. “Accents in the Workplace: Their Effects during a Job Interview.” International Journal of Psychology 45.6 (2010): 417-26. Web.
    • Everyone has an Accent, Roberto Rey Agudo, The New York Times, July 14, 2018
    • Accent Discrimination: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Raquel Magalhaes

    Further Reading


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