Commentary on Cornelia Kristen’s “The Costs of a Non-Standard Accent in the Early Hiring Process” by ARC Student Fellow Arita Balaram

Professor Kristen’s compelling talk on the costs of a non-standard accent in the early hiring process fills a major gap in the literature—this topic has rarely been studied outside of laboratory settings in the U.S. There have also been few experimental studies on the costs of a non-standard accent on immigrants in the European context, and hardly any evidence from field experiments.

The research Professor Kristen presented on searches for some clarity on why Turkish immigrants in Germany (constituting one of the largest migrant populations in Western Europe) often have difficulties in the labor market. Because many Turkish immigrants were recruited for low-skilled labor to work in Germany, low socio-economic background explains part of the story. Professor Kristen suggests that foreign accents may further contribute to less favorable outcomes Turkish immigrants face in the labor market.

Professor Kristen acknowledges the ways that language proficiency is a crucial human capital resource relevant for immigrant labor market success (Chiswick and Miller, 2005). While language has many different components, she and her team of researchers are interested in one specific aspect—the way people speak. Research has shown that foreign accents are a particularly salient aspect of speech and a strong cue of group membership. It is important in impression formation, even more so than other attributes like names or someone’s physical appearance. Literature on this topic also argues that individuals with non-standard accents are more likely to be rated negatively; they are rated as less pleasant to listen to, less competent, and of belonging to a lower status (Gluszek and Dovidio, 2010). Turkish immigrants in Germany have been considered to be one of the toughest to integrate (Cruel and Vermeulen, 2003) and there have been ongoing debates about the alleged unwillingness of Turkish (but also of other Muslim groups) to adapt, yet there are few available experimental studies to provide some evidence on hiring discrimination.

Professor Kristen’s research study explored initial contact between potential applicants and employers. It consisted of a phone call in response to a job advertisements; interaction was entirely speech-based so that a wide range of potentially confounding factors could be eliminated. Kristen anticipated that the data would show that the costs of the Turkish accent would be particular relevant for jobs with greater communicative demands, in contexts where the employers or customers have greater biases (as the accent is a strong trigger for the activation of stereotypes), in smaller vs. larger firms, and whether or not diversity is mentioned in the advertisement. All callers were fluent in both Turkish and German; the question callers asked was, “Is the position still available?”

The data showed that there was a significant difference in whether the call recipient responded ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the above question depending on whether the caller had a Turkish accent or a German accent. Kristen also found interaction effects between firm size (the costs of a non-standard accent are greater in a small firm than a large firm), diversity mentioned (the costs are greater if diversity is not mentioned), and regional attitudes towards immigrants (if you live in an area in which many people have strong aversions to immigrants, the costs will be higher).

The talk closed with many provocative questions including those related to the distinctions between discrimination towards a specific ethnic group vs. an immigrant group. All agreed that Professor Kristen’s study was incredibly impressive and a great contribution to the literature on the potential barriers immigrant groups face in entering the labor market.