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Can’t get promoted? How language and ethnicity in interviews contributes to ‘enduring and intangible’ barriers for ethnic minorities.

‘Talking like a manager: promotion interviews, language and ethnicity’ is a report by Celia Roberts, Sarah Campbell and Yvonne Robinson which aims to identify some of the wider organisational cultures and practices which may act as a barrier to promotion.

The research, which was carried out by Kings College, London on behalf of the UK Department for Work and Pensions, is a follow-up to the previous Talk on trial study which examined the role of language and ethnicity in selection interviews for low-paid jobs.

The Linguistic Penalty

Talking like a manager confirms the earlier finding that there is a 'linguistic penalty' in promotion interviews against those ethnic minority candidates who were born abroad. First generation ethnic minority candidates fared less well than other candidates in interviews.

‘While the requirements of the interview produce challenges for most candidates, its linguistic and cultural demands disadvantage this group disproportionately,’ said the researchers.

Despite well-meaning attempts to design objective and fair interviews, the taken-for-granted cultural and linguistic norms of the job interview disadvantage this group.

There is a 'linguistic penalty' in promotion interviews against those ethnic minority candidates who were born abroad.

The report also highlighted a lack of shared understanding about the purpose of the interview and expected responses which lead to frequent misalignments between interviewer and candidate. This, said the authors, can lead to a negative dynamic in which interviewers' modes of questioning serve to reinforce an initial, negative impression.


The study used a mix-method approach including discourse analysis of promotion interviews from three companies and case studies of two companies using semi-structured interviews.

Twenty-two promotion and selection interviews were video or audio recorded and analysed using an interactional discourse analysis approach. The researchers also conducted brief pre- and post-interviews with candidates; decision-making sessions were observed, and interviewers gave feedback on recorded interviews. In the two case study organisations, sixty-two semi-structured interviews were conducted, and sessions were audio recorded and analysed using an interpretive discourse analysis approach.

Key findings

The research showed that there are persistent but intangible barriers to ethnic minority groups progressing into management positions. While some of these relate to specific practices, such as the interview itself, others can only be overcome if organisations address the more general issues of race equality that affect satisfaction and morale.

While formal procedures in place in organisations are a necessary element in overcoming or preventing barriers to progression for ethnic minority groups, they are not, in themselves, enough.

The processes of socialisation with managers that would help them to ‘talk like a manager’ as one of the many factors that demotivate staff from applying for promotion.

For example, the researchers identified the processes of socialisation with managers that would help them to ‘talk like a manager’ as one of the many factors that demotivate staff from applying for promotion or inhibit their access to social networks and social capital.

In the same way, formal procedures for training in diversity and interviewing skills, while giving the appearance of objectivity, do not always engage with the detailed processes of the job interview or scrutinise them for the potential they have for indirect discrimination.

Interviews are ‘a Paradox’

In terms of diversity and equality, the selection interview is still what the researchers call ‘a paradox’. While presented as an objective, transparent and institutionally defensible procedure, more detailed analysis shows that it is a distinctly human and subjective process in which candidates are sorted primarily on the basis of their personality.

The culture shock of the interview, particularly for ethnic minority candidates born abroad, is rarely acknowledged, while talk of respecting differences is hard to reconcile with the interview’s culturally determined criteria. The issues are similar across all levels of jobs, says the report, although for promotion and management interviews, there is greater attention paid to displaying ‘a management persona’.

‘The largely hidden demands on candidates to talk in an institutionally credible style are similar in both low-paid and management interviews. The competency frameworks are similar in both levels of interviews as are the expectations to align to the interviewers and to the particular blend of work talk, analytic talk and more personal talk which comprises the ‘linguistic capital’ expected in job interviews.’

The general design of interviews, says the report, creates a persistent barrier to those who have less access to and experience of the communicative style and knowledge that they need to succeed at interview.

Good Practices are Closing the Gap

On a more positive note, the research also found many good practices, both informal and formal, that were closing the gap between official statements and the reality of some persistent disadvantage.

However, they noted, there were still institutional norms and local attitudes that had the potential to negatively affect ethnic minority progression.

In its recommendations, the researchers have highlighted the need for formal procedures such as ethnic monitoring to create fairness in promotion.

Many of the identified good practices such as language training, mentoring, preparation and support for the interview and open systems of communication are transferable to any organisation where ethnic minority groups are not progressing into management posts, they conclude.

Organisations also need to consider the gaps between formal procedures and local practices. Organisations should introduce more formal and wide-ranging systems for mentoring those who are considering or might consider promotion. Once these are in place, mentors can better develop extensive and informal relations with mentees so that the latter can be given the opportunity to be socialised into ways of talking like a manager and into the specific linguistic/cultural demands of the competence-based interview.

Organisations need to recognise that the management selection interview is a highly culturally-specific event, reflecting the normative values and styles of the majority ethnic organisational culture. The researchers suggest dispensing with the interview or re-weighting it in relation to other assessment centre activities.

Recognising the Differences for Those Born Abroad

Interviewers should be trained for a better awareness of the dangers of ethnic minority candidates’ perceived discrimination which can occur because of the gap between their perceptions of their performance and how they were rated by interviewers. The researchers recommend that interviewers should also be given a more detailed awareness on the difficulties that a competency-based interview presents to candidates, particularly those born abroad.

Candidates born abroad should also be given more advice on the purpose and conduct of the interview.

For interviews with candidates born abroad, the researchers recommend that the focus should be on differences in communicative style and the implicit expectations of the interview. This involves finding a middle way between discretion and display, supporting claims with evidence and managing the social relationships of the interview.

Candidates born abroad should also be given more advice on the purpose and conduct of the interview. While interviewers look for a holistic picture of the candidate through the style in which they answer mainly competency-based questions, the research showed that candidates born abroad expect more opportunity to talk explicitly about their different life experiences.

To help individuals improve their interview skills, the research also recommends that specific feedback should be given to unsuccessful candidates on the detailed reasons for their lack of success.

‘Talking like a manager: promotion interviews, language and ethnicity’. Celia Roberts, Sarah Campbell and Yvonne Robinson. Department for Work and Pensions Research Report No 510.

This article has been republished from the ReConnect Africa Library

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