A few months ago, I saw an ad for a dream job at a well known company. It was an entry-level position, and I applied immediately. After weeks of silence, I reached out asking for feedback. What I received left me feeling frustrated, undervalued and discriminated against on the basis of my nationality.
My CV was discarded immediately because I lacked one job requirement: being a “native” English speaker.
English proficiency is relevant in many jobs, but it should never be measured by nationality, especially when there are ways to assess your aptitude that aren’t discriminatory.
Language proficiency tests such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) are designed specifically for this purpose. Yet, because of my nationality, my TOEFL score of 115/120 – which classifies my English abilities at the highest possible level – apparently wasn’t enough.
Asking someone to be native to a specific country is like asking them to be white: there is nothing they can do to achieve it, nor should they have to. Any job requiring you to be “native”, then, is blatantly discriminatory, whether intentionally or not.
In the UK, discrimination in the recruitment process is considered unlawful under the Equality Act of 2010. The law states that employers cannot discriminate against anyone because of “protected characteristics” – which include gender, age, race and nationality. But it doesn’t seem that some employers are taking much notice.
In 2019, the Centre for Social Investigation conducted a study where they sent out over 3,000 applications, using the same skills, qualifications and work experience, but “randomly varying applicants’ minority background”. On average, the job search was less successful for ethnic minorities, who, despite having identical credentials, needed to send 60 percent more applications to receive as many callbacks as their fictitious white British counterparts.
While nationality is also a protected characteristic, a search of the term “native English” on LinkedIn throws up 1,141 results (while not all of these refer to language skills, many of them do), while JournoResources reported having found more than 23 different journalism-related job adverts including the term “native speaker” in one month.
Maria Gizelli is a Greek jewellery designer who moved to London four years ago. She says she has experienced discrimination during the hiring process several times due to her accent. Once, she was told by a recruiter that while the company liked her, they wanted a native English speaker. The second time, she was applying for a customer service position she was overqualified for. During the interview, she was asked about her strong accent. Gizelli never heard back from them, and a friend who worked for the same company later told her she wasn’t chosen because of her accent.
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the UK. Zurlia Servellon is an author and former sales director born in El Salvador. She moved to the United States at age 13, where she attended school and university, but kept her Salvadoran accent. Servellon says that when she started attending job interviews she was told repeatedly that they needed native speakers: “I had an employer once who told me I needed to fake my accent to sound more native if I wanted to make it in his company.”
After leaving that job, Servellon says, she was always hired for more junior positions than what she was qualified for, while witnessing less experienced candidates land higher-ranked jobs because they “spoke better English”. “I eventually got tired of feeling discriminated [against] and started my own business. I had a lot of self-doubts and thought my accent would hold me back, but in business, I’ve found that it is one of my most attractive traits. Clients compliment me on my accent almost daily,” says Servellon.
Gareth Kervin, Managing Partner at Kervin & Barnes Solicitors, a firm specialising in employment law advice, says in instances where “native English” is required, we can talk about “indirect discrimination”.
“Indirect discrimination is when an employer sets criteria or a requirement,” says Kervin, meaning that by specifying that they want a native English speaker, “the indirect effect is you are discriminating against people not born in the UK”.
Indirect discrimination also means employers can defend themselves by claiming language proficiency is a genuine occupational requirement, but Kervin agrees that there are better ways to establish language competency than using the term native. “You’ve got many native speakers whose level of English would be extremely poor,” he says.
Even though the law is there to protect applicants, very few claims are brought forward, which enables companies to continue to discriminate. Several difficulties, including evidence and costs, arise when trying to file a discrimination claim. These claims can also cause unfair “reputational damage”.
Kervin explains that the decisions made by the tribunal get recorded online: “If somebody googles your name, the top entry will show them versus this company. Many HR departments google people during the recruiting process, and if you've got your name on a case, which says you sued an employer, that's going to make it very difficult to get another job.” Many of Kervin’s clients with strong claims won’t bring them up because of fear of this happening.
It’s no wonder, then, that there are still so many discriminatory job ads. Not only is there a potential racial profiling problem, but the existing laws that are supposed to protect citizens from discrimination are incredibly hard to enforce.
It is possible, however, to work proactively to create a fairer hiring process that provides a truly equal opportunity for everyone. Rachel Carrel, Founder and CEO of Koru Kids, a childcare tech startup, has been using a blind hiring method across all her open roles. As a result, two recent writer roles went to English-as-a-second-language speakers. Carrel recognises that by going the traditional CV-first approach, her company may have never chosen these two candidates.
“One of our candidates is Spanish, and she has a beautiful, very strong Spanish accent,” she says. “And again, who knows, if we’d just looked at her CV, we might have thought, ‘No, we need a native English speaker for that role.’ But it turns out she has worked as a translator and her English is absolutely perfect.”
Discrimination isn’t always in your face: it can be insidious too – and native English as a job requirement harms not only the prospective employees it excludes, but companies too, who, in blocking diverse voices from the conversation, are ultimately worse off for it.