Research by Yondu Mori, PhD, a recent graduate from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, provides evidence that other factors – including an attractive and friendly voice – might have a bigger effect than having a non-standard accent

The high-stakes context of a job interview is rich with opportunities for research questions. Yondu Mori, PhD, brought her interest in non-verbal communication to examine potential biases at play in hiring settings, as well as their impacts on the experience of newcomers to Canada.  

Thoughtful and passionate about her PhD thesis subject, the recent McGill graduate conducted research on perceptions of a speaker with a non-standard (or foreign) accent – a manner of pronunciation which differs from the phonological and intonational speech norms of native speakers in a country or region – in job interviews. 

Amid existing research that suggests that speakers with non-standard accents might be judged negatively when seeking employment, Mori’s research yielded surprising, yet nuanced, results. Across two studies, she found that cues other than a speaker’s accent conveyed from their voice contribute more strongly to their perceived suitability for a job.  

“What I found interesting was that the controls [rating the attractiveness or friendliness of a speaker’s voice] were actually stronger predictors of whether somebody was perceived as competent or not, compared to whether they had an accent or not,” she says. Cues expressed through the physical appearance of a candidate also had a more powerful impact. 

This finding shows the significance of interviewers’ interest in socially connecting with job candidates, regardless of their accent. “That was the biggest takeaway, and it was also a significant mediator of the relationship between how competently you’re conveying your voice and how suitable you are perceived for a job,” Mori adds.   

In addition, the ethnic appearance of speakers with non-standard accents did not increase potential negative perceptions related to only hearing their accent. However, both studies found the positive effect of vocal friendliness was smaller for speakers with non-standard accents – indicating, as Mori points out in her thesis, a need for more research in this area.  

Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Mori completed her PhD under the supervision of Marc D. Pell, PhD, a James McGill Professor at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Interim Vice-Dean, Academic Affairs, in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.   

“Members of my lab have been actively investigating how features of a person’s identity derived from their voice or speaking style, such as their sex, gender or linguistic/cultural background, affect how these people are understood, socially evaluated, and ultimately, treated by others,” says Prof. Pell. “Yondu’s work demonstrates that different forms of social perception, linked to how attractive or likeable we find another person based on their speaking voice, interact with the human tendency to ‘favour’ members of the same group (here, accent). Her work showcases the complexity of social communication and how speech-related inferences guide critical life decisions, such as whether you will be offered a job.”  

Examining non-standard accents and perceptions of competence 

Mori says she chose her thesis subject because it was, “so relevant and so pertinent.” 

“There was a lot of qualitative research, in which people were interviewed on their experiences of immigrating and going through interviews,” she explains, adding that much existing research had agreed that having a non-standard accent could lead to a speaker being judged as less competent for a job.  

Mori also wanted to investigate other non-verbal factors such as tone of voice, explaining, “If somebody had immigrated to Canada, and they had what was perceived as a ‘foreign’ accent, would being nervous in a job interview be even more detrimental to their ability to get a job?” 

In her first study, 60 native Canadian English speakers were asked to imagine they were helping to choose an employee to be promoted to a human resources manager position. They listened to recordings of American English speakers and Singaporean English speakers, expressing either pride or shame through their voices. All speakers uttered the same phrase to questions about their skills, so participants focused on how the speakers talked instead of the words they used.     

Participants then rated how they perceived each speaker’s competence for the position and how likely they would be to recommend hiring each speaker (i.e., job suitability). As a control, participants were also asked to rate how attractive and friendly each speaker’s voice sounded.  

In one of the experiments in the second study, 102 native Canadian English speakers were randomly presented with images of male and female faces of East Asian and European heritage and rated their competence for the same job and how likely they would be to recommend hiring them. The East Asian faces were then randomly paired with recordings of male and female Singaporean English speakers, while the European faces were randomly paired with recordings of male and female American English speakers.  Participants responded to the same questions as in the first study. Lastly, participants rated the speakers for vocal attractiveness, physical attractiveness and how similar speakers’ accents were to their own.  

Raising awareness of biases and improving second language teaching 

Mori’s findings might be encouraging for job applicants who feel at a disadvantage if they don’t speak with a Canadian English accent. However, she notes that her research still has applications in raising awareness of unconscious biases that employers might bring to job interviews and the potential HR policies that may be needed to combat this. 

“There is research that says people are more likely to hire somebody they perceive is similar to themselves,” she adds. “Unconsciously, people could be doing this.” 

Mori’s research could also have implications in the teaching of second languages, especially as competence can be expressed vocally in different ways across various languages, dialects and cultures. Helping students learn how to effectively convey their intentions and confidence through their tone of voice in job interviews in another culture may help them navigate hiring contexts more easily, she says.  

“I could imagine that learning those pragmatic skills, and the importance of conveying your intentions as you hope to convey them, can go a long way in forming social connections with others,” she adds.