The pressure to smooth an accent in the workplace

The Globe and Mail

By Tamara Baluja

Michel Ricard knew he was facing a hurdle when he couldn’t say his employer’s name properly in English.

“I couldn’t say Heinz,” he said, stressing the letter H, which in French is always silent at the beginning of a word. “It was almost impossible, and people would look at me strangely when I said ’einz Canada,” recalls the 48-year-old francophone.

Pronouncing his employer’s name properly wasn’t as much of an issue for the Montreal native when he was Heinz’s director of sales in Quebec, but he found his French-Canadian accent to be problematic when he became national sales director for H.J. Heinz Co. of Canada Ltd.

“I could see people weren’t really listening to me when I was giving a speech, or they would ask me a question later that showed me they hadn’t got what I said,” Mr. Ricard said.

Although he considered himself fluent in English, his accent seemed to be tripping him up. “It was very frustrating, very stressful. I felt like I wasn’t doing my job properly.”

So three years ago, Mr. Ricard’s supervisors brought in Bonnie Gross, a Toronto speech pathologist, to help him smooth his accent.

“Taking these accent-reduction classes has made a big difference and given me the confidence to speak to customers,” he said, adding: “It’s not helpful to pretend there won’t be language problems when you speak with very diverse teams like I do.”

His francophone accent is still noticeable when he speaks in English, but Mr. Ricard says he has received good feedback from colleagues. And he still calls upon Ms. Gross when he has to deliver a speech to a large audience.

Ms. Gross is president and founder of Speech Science International Inc., which has been helping executives smooth their accents and polish their presentation skills since 1997. Her long list of clients include people from IBM Canada Ltd., Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Research In Motion Ltd. and Royal Bank of Canada.

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