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'Accent is an irrelevant factor' if you can do the job, but it can pose a challenge during the job hunt

Sandeep Gupta immigrated to Canada with more than 15 years of IT experience, hopeful that he would land a job in the field where he is qualified.

Shortly after arriving in Toronto in 2014, he sent out resumes in droves and received several email responses back, including a few that were promising. 

The next step would be a phone conversation before an in-person interview. Over the phone, however, Gupta said he sensed the initial enthusiasm begin to wane.

"The only reason I can think of was after hearing obviously he could figure out this person was not from here," he told CBC Toronto. "You start talking and then the conversation sort of drops off. And you start wondering what went wrong."

Foreign-earned credentials pose a common challenge for newcomers in the job hunt, but less overtly, an accent may too.

"Going through that experience is not easy. It's also the timing. You have to settle personally, socially — and if you have a family and kids — it just adds another layer of pressure if you experience something like that."

'You can't discriminate based on someone's accent'

Denying employment over a job seeker's accent contravenes the Ontario Human Rights Code, according to human rights advocates. Although language is not explicitly reflected in the code, it is related to ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin or race — all prohibited grounds.

"You can't discriminate based on someone's accent. If the person can do the job, then accent is an irrelevant factor," said Grace Vaccarelli, a lawyer at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

"There's no grey area...[Accent] really is a proxy. People say accent, but what they're really saying is someone from the Global South. You don't hear the Queen's English being used in the same way [when] you hear other accents."

Grace Vaccarelli, a lawyer at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, says denying employment over a job seeker's accent contravenes the Ontario Human Rights Code. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

There is no figure to indicate how prevalent discrimination based on accent is in Ontario, but there are a couple of documented cases, including a 2014 decision, in which the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled that a Chinese-Canadian worker was discriminated against in part, based on place of origin — and by extension — his accent, when he was terminated. He received 11 months in lost wages and $15,000 in compensation. 

If a job seeker believed their accent was used to deny them a job or terminate their employment, they can file a human rights complaint. The onus is then on the employer — the respondent — to provide an explanation.

"They can't generally say communication was a problem or they can't generally say the accent was a problem. What does that mean exactly?" Vaccarelli said. "They have to precisely show that the person was unable to do their job. And what alternatives were explored...if the accent actually was an issue. In most cases, I can't see how an accent would be an issue to doing a job."

Opportunity to educate employers

Pedro Monteros, an employment and training consultant, said employers try to dodge applicants with an accent "quite often."

"It is related to the perception that when somebody has an accent that will pose as a barrier to communication," he said. "We destroy that because it's a myth." 

Monteros said employers try to skirt around the reason for their disinterest in a qualified candidate. They might say that the job requires a lot of interaction with clients or the public, even when that is not the case. He recalls an example of an employer fearing that too many employees with an accent may make it appear as if they are an "ethnic-oriented business."

"The degree of discomfort — or we can call it wariness — is different. Some manifest very clearly. Some have it embedded in their conversation."

Pedro Monteros, an employment and training consultant, gets involved whenever there is an inkling that an accent may be behind an employer's reluctance to hire an applicant. (CBC)

Monteros left Ecuador for Canada in 1987, and is very candid about speaking with an accent or, as he views it, an asset. Whenever there is an inkling that an accent may be behind an employer's reluctance to hire a client, he gets involved.

"The first thing I do when I greet or meet with employers is, 'Are you hearing me right?'"

"I say, 'If you can understand me, all your clients are going to. So what's the problem?"

Years ago, these interactions might've frustrated Monteros. Now they are an opportunity for him to educate employers.

"I don't see it as a problem for me. I see it as a problem for the employer," he said. "The employer is creating this problem for themselves. They're not taking full advantage of what they should be taking advantage of — the skills the person, no matter which language or which accent, is bringing in."

Implicit bias training is key

The vast majority of immigrants to Canada arrive in the economic class, targeted for their skill set and proficiency in English or French. Economic immigrants make up 60 per cent of the government's immigration target for 2018.

So they've gone through stringent screening, notes Rupa Banerjee, an associate professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management, only to be filtered out of job prospects.

"They made it through the system based on their skills and human capital but then they come here and find their skills are not valued as Canadian skills."

"The accent piece is just one more strand in this entire story of the difficulties that immigrants face."

Banerjee, whose background is in human resources, said newcomers also report the perception that they can't speak English, as a result of their accent, despite having a strong command of the language.

"That kind of reinforces the fact that a lot of this has to do with those racial stereotypes that we already hold and when you can hear it in the way that someone speaks, it's very easy to find an excuse to hold that against them in the hiring process."

People in positions of power need to be aware of their implicit biases, Banerjee said, and training for bias as well as cultural sensitivity should be commonplace. 

"I'm hopeful that as we move into an even more diverse society, where people of different backgrounds, accents, are holding different kinds of positions, that the knowledge of this bias will at least become more mainstream."