I was in a group discussion recently talking about ways we could really help newcomers in Canada. Naturally then everyone threw up the same tired ideas about assisting them in crafting resumes, providing guidance, helping them get their educational credentials recognized and of course upgrading their skills. Then I suggested that there are other invisible but audible hurdles that come between many immigrants and their dream job- a strong accent. I explained: Often for jobs involving a higher degree of communication, newcomers with strong accents get passed over despite all those splendid qualifications. After facing rejection repeatedly, many of these applicants put down their rejection on racism or an unconscious bias.
One South Asian millennial with a flawless Canadian accent was opposed to letting any immigrant know their strong accent was getting in the way of their professional progress, mostly because it would go against the politically correct thinking that believes that ‘all accents are beautiful.’ The millennial chided Canadians who needed to be more welcoming of foreign accents and basically get used to it.
Of course the well-meaning millennial had a point, all accents are beautiful and Canadians should get used to hearing new versions of English which may sound unfamiliar. There is only one problem with that- many impatient South Asian millennials I know are not above complaining about calling up their bank and finding themselves talking to someone in another country speaking an unfamiliar version of English. When it comes to customer service, even South Asians with strong accents want to be served by a Canadian, white preferably who speaks English with a Canadian accent.
I asked a Caucasian living in Mississauga and who has plenty of South Asian immigrants in her workplace about accents and she confessed initially having a hard time following them and had to repeatedly ask them to slow down and repeat themselves. It took a while to follow strong Indian accents until she had a few Chinese newcomers with accents and she had to get used to that accent as well. Strangely she noted one of her South Asian colleagues made a remark about struggling to understand the Chinese-Canadian colleague.
A senior government bureaucrat and a school educator were the only two people in the group who understood just how hard it can be to follow accents in certain situations.
One time the bureaucrat was in a meeting with a brilliant tech person, a South Asian who was presenting the measures being taken to protect internet security and these bureaucrats struggled to understand the accent. At the end of the meeting they were forced to make a tough decision to let the tech head know that they needed another person to make that presentation in front of the entire staff.
I could not help thinking about the professional fate of this brilliant techie who could hit a glass ceiling later in his profession because of his accent. I wondered how he felt to know he would not get the recognition from the clients because he was condemned to remain in the background and let a junior colleague with a Canadian accent make important presentations.
Many of the top companies routinely reimburse their employees who take courses to upgrade their professional skills, but no company would consider reimbursing an employee who takes an accent reduction course. And the reason is clear- it would legitimize the fact that certain accents simply don’t work for the employee or the company.
However I have interviewed two South Asians who were fortunate enough to have kindly bosses who paid for accent reduction classes because their future roles would involve making important presentation to their clients. Far from being offended these two employees were grateful for that course because it help them develop confidence and self-esteem. Off the record, one of them said that despite his six-figure salary, he was always conscious of his accent because his colleagues and clients invariably had difficulty understanding him. “I used to try to talk as little as possible at meetings and cocktail parties, now I can express myself and don’t find people asking me to repeat everything, that is a relief,” he said.
What about so many newcomers who may be seeking jobs requiring a high degree of communication? Too many new immigrants I suspect have either been overlooked for promotions into management or have just not got their foot in the door because of their strong accents. This to me this is scandalous.
Politicians who believe in being politically correct to a fault will never dare provide funding to social service groups to engage the services of drama teachers and other accent reduction professionals who can help smooth out strong accents. It is way easier to tell Canadians to celebrate diversity and be accepting of everything foreign including accents than it is to help newcomers overcome the one thing coming in the way of a better job or more income. It is estimated educated foreign-born immigrants get paid one fifth less than their counterparts born and educated here. Has anyone wondered just how much of a role poor accents have to do with this travesty?
It is easier to fault hiring practices of businesses and strong-arm them into making their workforce more diverse. But that alone does not help new immigrants who may face an obstacle in the form of his or her accent.
Many second-generation Canadian immigrants have no issue when it comes to accents and so businesses can well point out to these employees to prove their hiring practices are kosher.
Businesses aren’t going to discriminate against a well-qualified engineer or a chartered accountant when the role doesn’t require much communication. But if a position requires a lot of interaction with clients, a hiring manager would most certainly take into account a strong accent, euphemistically referred to as ‘communication skills’ or ‘soft skills’.
I have met several people who’ve been denied promotions into management because they lacked ‘soft skills’ and by that these crushed employees took it to mean people skills, which was only part of the reason. A bigger part of the reason was also their strong accents which made them sound like they didn’t know what they were talking about. In one case, an immigrant woman found to her dismay that a junior second-generation South Asian got the job instead of her because of her excellent ‘soft skills’, so she was told. No one mentioned that she also had a Canadian accent.
I am beginning to wonder if telling a new immigrant they don’t have Canadian experience is simply more acceptable than letting them know they have un-Canadian accents. – CINEWS