When a Thick Accent Affects Hiring
By Margaret Hansen, JobsInDE.com
"Can I pahk heah or should I bang a U-ie and pahk ovah theah?"
Familiar speech? You must live in eastern New England or you've seen the movie Good Will Hunting. It belongs to someone who lives in or near Boston, Massachusetts and, according to William Labov, author of the Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change, it's the Eastern New England accent, found around Boston with variations in New Hampshire and Maine.
Best known for being non-rhotic (dropping Rs) and containing the "long A" sound (i.e. "baathroom"), this accent hasn't gotten great media attention lately and can be perceived negatively in the working world.
M. J. Connolly, a professor of linguistics at Boston College, estimates that about 15 percent of Greater Boston's population uses a Boston accent regularly, while 50 percent can speak with one as they wish.
Changing One's Accent
So, if a person speaks with a strong regional accent (such as this) during a job interview, it's likely they can't turn it off at will; at least not yet. Accent reduction training, which offers dialect coaching to soften or diminish an accent, is becoming a popular way to enhance one's career in business or acting. One program, called "Boston Accent Modification" has recently caught national attention and has even offended some proud Bostonians.
Even though there is a trend to soften regional accents, especially as job seekers find work far from home in a difficult economy, thick accents aren't going away any time soon.
Getting back to the interview candidate, let's assume they speak with a thick Eastern New England accent. If he or she is vying for a job with your company where they would need to speak with customers outside of New England, would you not hire this person because of their accent?
Before you quickly answer "yes," be careful. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based upon national origin. And even though residents of certain U.S. regions aren't considered "protected classes," according to the EEOC, regional U.S. accents could fall under this civil rights law and be protected by it. If you choose not to hire based on accent, you must be able to prove in court that an individual's accent "materially interferes with the ability to perform job duties."
A recent Harris Poll reminds us to be thoughtful of our own positive and negative stereotypes that we assign to regional accents. For example, a person is much more likely to hire someone with a local regional accent than a non-local regional accent.
Looking Beyond the Accent
In this weak economy, job seekers are feeling not so great about themselves and looking for ways to become more competitive and attractive to employers. The question to answer is: does accent really matter for the job at hand; and if it does, are you ready to prove that?
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Margaret Hansen has been writing professionally since receiving a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maine. She has worked for multiple organizations as a weekly newspaper reporter, a weekly newspaper editor, and in a variety of internal/external marketing communications roles. Her freelance career has focused on writing and editing for print, email and web publications in the employment industry, as well as manuscript editing and resume writing. Margaret has been affiliated with JobsInDE.com since 2003, most recently as the content manager/writer/editor for the company's award-winning employment-related newsletters. To suggest articles, or if you are interested in writing for JobsInDE.com, please email her at mhansen (at) JobsInDE.com.