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Avoiding Discrimination When Recruiting

Job seekers have long been mindful that both what they say and how they say it have the potential to be the deciding factor between landing a job and getting rejected. So spare a thought in particular for Brummies whose regional twang might just be the most unpopular in the country. And although a government minister has now spoken out against what appears to many as blatant discrimination, the law still offers no protection in this particular regard.

‘Accentism’ is an issue of two halves; some accents are considered charming and friendly – a soft Edinburgh accent bringing charm and personality to a corporate image – others are frowned upon and even considered a distraction in the workplace.

In a press release Employment Minister, Esther McVey claims that: “Anyone from any walk of life can achieve whatever they want, regardless of what accent they have.” She urged people not to hide their accents when attending work interviews, in recognition of the fact that many currently do.

The reality, however, is altogether more complex and those who suffer from accent discrimination will find little protection from the law despite the fact that it appears to contradict the notion of equal opportunities for all. In fact, if an employer did stereotype and showed a prejudicial attitude towards a candidate with a particular regional or even foreign accent, there is absolutely nothing the disappointed applicant can do about it.

This is because, under the Equality Act, accents do not feature on the list of protected characteristics alongside race, gender and gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, equal pay, disability, age, religion or belief and sexual orientation.

As it stands, employers cannot be pursued legally for failing to embrace accent equality in the workplace despite the fact that focus should always be on recruiting the best person for the job. But those who grimace when the receptionist greets visitors with an Y’alright Sir are missing a trick. There is real value in diversity and many people appreciate the charms of local accents – a point proved recently when an Irish schoolboy became an overnight sensation after exclaiming ‘You wouldn’t be long getting frostbit’ on a TV interview about the weather. The clip racked up 3.5million views in just three days. On the other hand, a culture where regional accents are discouraged could lead to widespread accent modification and, in turn, frustration from staff who feel unequal to their posh sounding colleagues.

What can irritate or prejudice one customer or client might create rapport and a connection for others. Hence the more diverse your work force is, the greater reach a business will have in a crowded and competitive marketplace – not to mention a more enthusiastic and contented workforce.

Regardless of what the law states, the fundamental basics of carrying out a fair recruitment process holds true and entails:

  • Preparing a full job description, which sets out the requirements of the role
  • Creating a person specification setting out the ideal candidate’s ability, skills and knowledge – pointing out which ones are essential and which are merely desirable
  • Make sure all advertising complies with the Equality Act – treating applicants fairly and equally and never offending or excluding people
  • Making sure two people from the interview panel prepare the shortlist of candidates, based on the person specification. Keep focused on the individual’s skills based on the requirements of the job and objectively grade candidates using the same criteria.

It is always good practice to adopt a monitoring process to record protected characteristics for ongoing review. And if candidates are chosen according to the above process, those with regional accidents will never be excluded merely because a particular interviewer dislikes their accent due to stereotyped views about people from certain parts of the UK.

Stand-up comics and comedy writers certainly have a lot to answer for when it comes to stereotyping people with accents. But although received pronunciation was recently named Britain’s favourite accent, there are real benefits for those who employ a more colourful mix of staff, who don’t all sound like an old BBC newsreel.

This article was written by Fiona Martin, head of Employment Law at Martin Searle Solicitors, and published in People Management magazine on 3 February 2015.

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