Speaking the Truth: Accents, Credibility, and Implicit Bias

Life as an immigrant in the United States has not been particularly hard for me, as I have always lived in diverse cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia. However, I certainly have been and continue to be a victim of discrimination. Now that I am graduating this year, I find myself worrying about whether recruiters will be less likely to invite me for an interview because of my name. “Shi Shi Li” sounds very foreign, and is nowhere near your typical American-sounding name.

My concern is not unfounded. A résuméaudit study conducted by Kang and colleagues found that Asian and Black applicants received more callbacks if they fully “whitened” their résumés, compared to those who did not.1 In this study, whitening a résumé means that the applicant changed their first name to be more American and changed their experience to be more race-neutral. For example, if an Asian applicant’s name is Lei Zhang, changing it to Luke Zhang would increase his chances of getting a callback.

Likewise, under the experience section, changing the club name “Aspiring Asian-American Business Leaders” to “Aspiring Business Leaders” would increase an Asian applicant’s chances of getting a callback. 

But simply scrubbing your CV of all references to race isn’t necessarily enough. My friend, who is also graduating this year, shares my concerns about getting a job, even though she has an American nickname which she puts on her résumé. She worries more about her accent, which she cannot so easily get rid of.

My friend is worried that her accent will leave a less-than-favorable impression on the recruiter during an interview. She is worried that the recruiter will have difficulty understanding her. She is worried that the recruiter will see her as an outsider and will not be able to mesh well with the employees at their company. Fundamentally, she is worried that she will be discriminated against because of her accent. 

Unconscious bias and accents

The threat of overt discrimination is discomfiting enough on its own—but another dimension that many people overlook is how accents can implicitly bias people, and how they affect a person’s perceived credibility. An experiment conducted by Lev-Ari and Keysar found that when non-native speech is difficult to understand, speakers are perceived as less credible.2 To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers had 30 native speakers of American English listen to 45 prerecorded statements about trivial things (e.g., “A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can”) made by 15 native speakers, 15 speakers with a mild accent, and 15 speakers with a heavy accent.

Before the participants listened to the trivia statements (half true, half false), the researchers had them record five trivia statements themselves, supposedly for future participants. This was done in order to drive home the fact that speakers were merely reciting trivia statements provided by the researchers, not expressing their own knowledge. After listening to each trivia statement, participants were asked to rate its veracity on a 14cm line, with one pole labeled definitely false and the other labeled definitely true

Results showed that accented speech was rated as less credible than native speech. Interestingly, participants did not rate the veracity of mildly accented statements significantly differently from heavily accented statements.

These findings are concerning for non-native speakers applying for jobs, as well as non-native speakers who are already employed. If their recruiters, peers, supervisors, and/or clients do not find them credible, then it would be extremely difficult for them to reach their goals. 

Combatting discrimination

What can companies do to prevent their recruiters and employees from incorrectly evaluating the veracity of an applicant’s or employee’s statement because of their accent? According to the study’s second experiment, companies can simply warn their recruiters and employees that their credibility judgments may be influenced by the difficulty of processing accented speech.

The procedure for the second experiment was identical to the first experiment, except for two details. First, the researchers told the participants that “The experiment is about the effect of the difficulty of understanding speakers’ speech on the likelihood that their statements will be believed.” Second, the participants also rated the difficulty of understanding the speaker on a continuous scale ranging from Very easy to Very difficult

The results showed that the participants rated statements spoken by a mildly accented speaker as equally credible as statements spoken by a native speaker. However, the warning did not prevent the participants from judging statements spoken by heavily accented speakers as less credible than statements spoken by native and mildly accented speakers. In addition, the results also revealed that the harder it was to understand the speaker, the less credible participants rated the statements.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that “Generally, an employer may only base an employment decision on accent if effective oral communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual’s foreign accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate orally in English.”3 Even if recruiters are aware of this law, they may subconsciously discriminate against an applicant based on her accent.

These results suggest that companies should hold periodic workshops—for example, once a year—informing their employees that they may subconsciously discriminate against applicants, and even their fellow coworkers, because of their accents. While these workshops may not be useful for preventing discrimination against applicants and employees with heavy accents, any steps taken towards reducing discrimination in the labor market and workplace is a move in the right direction. 

Lastly, if you believe you have been denied an opportunity because of your accent or any other form of discrimination (and you’re in America), you can file a charge of employment discrimination on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission public portal. Likewise, if you believe someone you know has been denied an opportunity because of discrimination, please direct them to that website, or pass along any resources that may be helpful to them. 

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