Language Discrimination Goes Beyond Just Grammar

Even when candidates are all equally qualified, employers pick native speakers over those born abroad

lady office worker
Michael Pujals

For immigrants to new countries, a language barrier can keep even the most qualified from getting hired. But researchers wanted to find out just what about the language gap was skewing hiring decisions. Was it the person's accent, grammar, or something else?

In one study from last year, researchers recorded job interviews in Britain for low-skilled, low-paid work like stacking shelves, deliving packages and packing factory products. None of these jobs required high-level language skills. And still, even when the candidates were all equally qualified (or the immigrants were better qualified), the employers picked British-born applicants over those from abroad.

Ingrid Piller at the blog Language on the Move explains that it wasn’t the applicants' accents or difficulty using precise grammar that turned off the employer. Instead, non-British born applicants weren’t structuring their answers the way that a British person would more generally.

Based on interviews with employers, the authors of the study confirmed that the hiring managers weren’t looking for someone with perfect English. What tripped up the non-British applicants was the arc managers expected in applicants' answers. When asked a question like, “What would you tell me is the advantage of a repetitive job?” applicant were expected to answer with a story, or an arc. Piller explains:

When they failed to produce an extended response, the interview usually became much more difficult: the interviewers became more controlling of the candidate’s talk and turns; there was more negativity and interviewers became less helpful and sympathetic; and the interviewers aligned more with formal participation roles and the interview became more formal and more institutionalized. Such conduct was a response to the candidate’s failure to produce the expected kind of discourse, but, crucially, it also served to make the interview much more difficult for them.

In other words, the applicants failed to play a game with language that British-born people know how to play. Nobody has trained many them on how to say that their biggest weakness is working too hard, or told them the importance of humor and anecdote in an interview, something that non-immigrants people are used to. The authors of the paper suggest that interviewers become more aware of these divides and try to structure their questions so as not to immediately disadvantage immigrants. But employers don't tend to be particularly aware of the subtle and subconscious biases in hiring processes.

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