Workplace Discrimination Against Non-Native Speakers

When employees appear destined for top-level management but are never actually chosen, they are said to suffer from the “glass ceiling effect.” Traditionally, research has documented a glass ceiling effect for women, but many other groups may be similarly discriminated against. Although research has shown that people speaking with a foreign accent are subject to discrimination, little is known about why this occurs. New research (Huang, Frideger, & Pearce, 2013) seeks to explain why.


The researchers used results of a lab experiment, as well as real-world data from an entrepreneurial funding competition, and found that non-native speakers indeed faced workplace discrimination. They were rated as less suitable for a managerial position in a hiring simulation, and they were less likely to receive funding in an entrepreneurial competition. But that’s not all. The researchers tested several different possible reasons for why this workplace discrimination occurred. Surprisingly, perceived communication ability or collaboration ability were not to blame. Additionally, outright racism against people from a different country did not statistically explain the discrimination. So what was the culprit? The researchers found that non-native speakers are seen as having less political skill than native speakers. In other words, interviewers question their ability to effectively influence others, navigate tricky interpersonal situations, and use language to build relationships and work with others.


What can non-native speakers do to overcome this kind of workplace discrimination? The researchers suggest that job interviewees might highlight their political skill by providing specific examples of past experiences, as well as seeking other ways to signal that they are politically skilled. This may work better than trying to change an accent, which they say is typically difficult to do. For interviewers and hiring managers, this research provides another example of how biased thinking can unfortunately lead to workplace discrimination when we aren’t being careful.

Huang, L., Frideger, M., & Pearce, J. L. (2013). Political skill: Explaining the effects of nonnative accent on managerial hiring and entrepreneurial investment decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(6), 1005-1017.