Is your accent holding you back or is it your employer? We work with a number of large companies where we provide accent reduction services. In many cases, management struggles with how to best address communication issues when they are related to accented speech. Communication skills in the workplace are very important and affect native speakers and non-native speakers alike. And many companies have no qualms about suggesting professional development courses to help improve a person’s communication skills. Many organizations host their own Toastmasters clubs to promote public speaking skills. Anger management training encompasses adjustments in verbal communications, and active listening. Presentation skills training touches on body language, voice projection, rate of speech, tone of voice, and other areas that overlap with accent reduction training. But why is it that an employer will shy away from promoting accent reduction training?
To many people, improving English and improving communication are one in the same, but from the perspective of an employer, they are very different. First of all, if your English skills were sufficient enough to get a job and keep it for 3 months or more, then an employer is seen as acting with discrimination if they express that a low level of English requires remedial measures. While some jobs require an English test, such as a TOEFL score, most employers will decide for themselves via a phone or an in-person interview. And even if there is such a test score, it does not address accented speech.
“Graduates tend to enter the workplace with all of the qualifications . . . but those with strong foreign accents often hit a huge roadblock during their very first phone interview,” says Kirk Hill, SFU’s executive director of the Career Management Centre.
And of course any university student must have acquired a TOEFL score as part of their admissions requirements. So for many, accented speech is not a problem until they reach a managerial level in the job market. For all intents and purposes, accented speech is not an ESL issue, it is a communication skills issue. But an employer may not see this distinction. They may consider an accent to be a language acquisition issue and then hesitate to address it out of a fear of acting discriminatory. For that reason, accent reduction is something an employee often needs to request on their own. It is not something that employers suggest even if they silently think it would benefit their workers.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ensures that people do not face discrimination at work. Most cases are centered on sexual discrimination towards women in the workplace, or the wrongful treatment of gays and lesbians in the workplace, but there are still some cases of racial or ethnic discrimination. And pointing out that someone’s accent is why they didn’t get that job promotion is discriminatory, but saying that someone needs better communication skills is not. In 1998, Mr. Mukulu Cizungu, a black Canadian citizen from Zarie, was fired from his job at a call centre. The employer had to prove to a Human Rights Tribunal that he was fired due to poor performance and communication skills and not due to his race and accent as he claimed. They showed that people often asked him to repeat the information he had provided. They said that the problem was that he always used the same words; he wouldn’t modify or reformulate his answer. Therefore, people often asked him to repeat what he said. If a heavy accent was really the problem, the employer never said so directly in any of its written evaluations and as a result the employer won this case. That said, the employer still lost money for its legal fees in this case because neither Mr. Cizungu or the government compensate a company for the legal fees it incurs in either a winning or a losing case. This is another reason an employer will hesitate to bring up issues relating to accented speech since it leads to this kind of lose-lose situation.
Accented speech crosses over into the area of communication skills when it impedes communications. When others have difficulty understanding you and frequently ask you to repeat yourself, then accent reduction training will benefit you. There is nothing wrong with accented speech; everyone has an accent of some kind. But when others strain to make out what you are saying, there is a wide range of negative results, from being uneducated to being untrustworthy. There have been studies that show this, and it affects native speakers with regional accents and non-native speakers with foreign accents. And this is not just in the context of English. A professional working in France may need to reduce their accent. In fact, Mr. Cizungu was speaking French and providing information over the phone to primarily French speaking senior citizens.
In a diverse workforce, it could be that workers from country X don’t understand workers from country Z. But both X and Z understands their native speaking co-workers. Accent reduction training is based on teaching the stress and rhythm of the language as well as the sounds that can be best understood by the general population. A heavy regional Brooklyn accent can be just as problematic as a heavy foreign accent. The idea behind accent reduction is that by using the techniques and methods of the majority of speakers you will be better understood by not just your native speaking co-workers, but non-native speaking coworkers as well. The end result is better communication skills with everyone.
If you or someone you know has ever thought about accent reduction as a means for professional development, remind them to take the first step in seeking out that service. The L2 Accent Reduction Centre provides free assessments and is used to packaging those assessment results into a format that a company understands. Most employers won’t hesitate to provide this training for their staff and in fact may be relieved that their worker has come to them with a solution which they were too afraid to raise.