Creative Equals CEO: "I was mocked for my strong Kiwi accent"

Ali Hanan, the founder and CEO of Creative Equals, addresses accent bias in the workplace.

by Ali Hanan

My first professional experience in the UK was a sobering one, to say the least. I came over from New Zealand in 1994 as a journalist and took a job as a sub editor at a magazine. My editor immediately took issue with me.

They told me they thought people from ‘the colonies’ were second-class, lacked a sense of decorum and had no sense of etiquette or style.

They loathed my dress sense and berated me in public when I admitted I hadn’t heard of the word, sybarite.

Above all, they mimicked and mocked me for my strong Kiwi accent. The thing that is so fundamental to my identity.

There were endless jokes about the way I said: ‘decks’, ‘six' and the word ‘tape’. Once is maybe a laugh, but it gets humiliating when it happens over and over again.

Judgement and discriminatory behaviour became a recurrent in my everyday. Before long, I began to doubt my skills, lose my confidence and made the decision to leave my job and go freelance.

It was the only way I felt I could cut my own space and control the environment.

The impact of micro and macro aggressions in the workplace

At my next job, I adopted an English accent, bought new clothes and, since shoes were seen as social currency, I invested a full week’s wages in a pair of Dr Martens cherry-red brogues. It was clear I had no idea about British culture.

I felt like an outsider, code-switched through my days and always had the feeling of not being enough and never being heard.

For me, it was an experience rooted in accent bias and class, based on the concept that people who came from the colonies were seen at best as working class, and at worst as thieves and criminals.

I know that many people, particularly racially diverse women, disabled women, neurodivergent women, returning mothers and all the intersections in between, face micro and macro-aggressions far beyond those that I experienced.

Aggressions are like a thousand paper cuts and after a time they can gravely affect self-confidence, self-esteem and mental health. Unsurprisingly, people who are mocked because of the way they speak can become anxious over future career prospects because of perceived prejudiced attitudes.

Currently, our team runs an Equality Standard with companies looking at staff side data. You can see clearly how non-dominant groups in the workplace experience more inappropriate behaviours than others. We see this as a direct impact on retention rates for various companies in the workplace.

All companies need to understand how bias and discrimination in the workplace impacts turnover and, ultimately, the cost this has on their business.

Sadly, it was no surprise to see recent research reveal almost half of workers have had their accents mocked, criticised or singled out in a social setting.

The importance of addressing xenophobia in the workplace

Much of the corporate DE&I focus is on gender, race, ethnicity and LGBTQ+, not nationality, but employers must be aware of the cultural norms and nuances that could lead to employees omitting xenophobic behaviours.

Awareness of this is so important, particularly for white, English-speaking people who afford many privileges that others don’t. Colleagues must accept that different cultures have different ways of behaving.

In New Zealand, we have 'tall poppy syndrome', where someone will never bang their own drum or stand above other people as this is perceived as arrogance. As a consequence it took me a long time to realise developing a 'personal brand' was key to success or that it was OK for me to speak in public or take the stage.

Employers also need to be aware of cultural references, particularly in the first six months of someone coming to the UK. It can be isolating for people who can’t join in on conversation around the latest music or TV series, or don’t know how to have ‘watercooler’ banter - such a pertinent part of many British offices.

Let’s not forget that other cultures coming to the UK may be facing the challenge of English as a second language. Trying to understand the British art of conversational subtext as a non-English speaker can be quite the challenge.

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