One in 33 people work in a country other than their birth country. In most cases, these people's communications carry a mark of their foreignness, in the form of a non-native accent. In a new study, Laura Huang, Marcia Frideger and Jone Pearce investigate how accent amounts to a glass ceiling for high performing non-natives that prevents them from obtaining elite positions.
In a first experiment , 179 principally White and Asian students were asked to listen to audio recordings of a candidate interviewed for a middle management role, where the script was always the same. However, the photo on the candidate CV showed the candidate to be either White or Asian in appearance, and the accent of the actor playing the candidate on the audio was either native US, or non-native: Japanese-sounding for the Asian photo, Russian-sounding for the White photo. Afterwards participants rated the candidate on a number of measures, including their recommendation of whether to hire.
Participants gave stronger hiring endorsements to candidates with native accents, regardless of race. This alone could reflect a perception that the speakers were hard to understand (although their words were identical), or a gut animosity toward an outgroup member. But Huang’s team believed that people make a specific attribution about non-native accents – that the person lacks political skill. After all, past evidence suggests people associate these accents with lower social awareness and levels of persuasion, both necessary for politicking. And prejudices are safer expressed by criticising something as nebulous and subjective as political skill. As predicted, native-accent candidates were ranked as having more political skill, and this mediated the hiring recommendations. No such effect was found for ratings of communication, nor of collaboration, which one would expect to be affected if participants were generally denigrating outgroup members.
In a second experiment, the authors showed the effect to extend to investment decisions. Participants coded 90 videos of genuine pitches made by entrepreneurs at a funding event, only 30 of which led to offers of funding. Entrepreneurs with non-native accents were less likely to receive funding, with race again having no bearing. True to form, political skill as judged by the coders tracked the success of the pitches, whereas communication and collaborative skill did not. This study is especially important considering that ambitious non-natives anticipating glass ceilings in organisations may decide to start their own; this result suggests they may still face similar impediments.
The researchers conclude that 'the ambiguity and importance of political skill make it an attractive ostensibly meritocratic reason to block non-native speakers from executive positions'. They suggest that those faced with these impediments could anticipate, name, and allay these concerns, highlighting their political skills to decision-makers. And those decision-makers should themselves become conscious of this bias to prevent hasty attributions.
Gluszek, A. & Dovidio, J. F. (2010). The way they speak: A social psychological perspective on the stigma on nonnative accents in communication. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14: 214-237.