How HR Managers Should Approach an Employee who Needs Accent Reduction Training

Do you have a talented employee with poor English skills?  Do you wish you could help him or her but are afraid of coming across as insensitive or discouraging?  Here are five tips for helping your employee get the help they need:

  1. Begin by emphasizing the employee’s value to the company.  If your employee feels that they are valued, they are more likely to embrace constructive feedback.
  2. Ask the employee how they feel about their English skills.  Often, people with poor speech know they need to get better.  If your employee is capable of accurately assessing his or her deficiencies it will be easier for you to get their buy-in for training.
  3. Avoid using the phrase “accent reduction” –  the term tends to put people off.  Begin by suggesting “articulation courses” or “speech enhancement”.
  4. Make the lessons voluntary.  It’s never a good idea to force training on an employee who doesn’t want it.  Your employee will become bitter, and the training will not go well.
  5. Offer to compensate your employee for lessons.  Think about the added value your company will have when your top talent can truly express themselves in important meetings!

Why Do People Doubt You When You Speak With An Accent?

In my coaching practice, I often hear that people feel they are being discriminated against due to the fact that they have an accent.  Accent discrimination is rampant and surprisingly legal.  The question is, why do people discriminate?

New research done at the University of Chicago suggests prejudice is only part of the problem.  Non-native accents make speech more difficult for native speakers to parse, and thereby reduces “cognitive fluency”, or the process by which the brain organizes stimuli.  This causes people to doubt the veracity of what is said.  From “The Scientific American”:

As a test case, researchers asked people to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements.  Statements were recited by either native or non-native English speakers. (Example: A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can.) The non-native speakers had mild or heavy Asian, European, or Middle Eastern accents. The subjects were told that all the statements had been written by the researchers but, still, the subjects tended to doubt them more when recited with an accent.

This has broad implications.  It may be that accent discrimination isn’t really about prejudice as much as the brains inherent distaste for any information that is difficult to process.   This may be cold comfort for those who have difficulty being understood on a regular basis.  By encouraging both higher levels of spoken English fluency AND increasing awareness around the science of accent “discrimination”, we can increase effective communication across the globe.