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.
"The fact is, people tend to make a lot of assumptions when they hear an accent: Is he smart or not smart? Why are they not making eye contact? Why are they not projecting their voice?" Ms. Gross said, citing some of the reactions people may have.
At Speech Science, she said, speech pathologists work with clients to not only reduce accents, but also to modify intonation, rhythm of speech and body language.
Despite the importance of such skills in the corporate world, Ms. Gross said many of her clients would rather that others not know they are getting help. "It's like cosmetic surgery," she said. "Nobody wants anyone else to know, especially the higher up they are on the corporate ladder."
Some question the need for such linguistic first aid. They wonder why someone would feel compelled to change something that is so much a part of his or her identity, especially in a country like Canada, which touts its bilingual, multicultural makeup.
But there's no question that strong language skills are key to workplace success. A survey conducted in 2009 by Compas Research, for example, found that language skills were the biggest gulf between Canadian employers and highly skilled immigrants who were looking for a job. The survey found that 87 per cent of senior executives said inadequate language skills in English and French stopped them from hiring foreign-trained professionals – but few of those newcomers thought their language skills were inadequate.
Phani Radhakrishnan, who teaches human resources and courses such as diversity in the workplace at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, has mixed feelings about accent-reduction services.
"When I first came here, I tried to make my Indian accent more Canadian, because I wanted to feel accepted," she said. "Everyone talks about multiculturalism here, but what happens in the backyard is different. But it's a personal thing, and I felt I was losing a part of my identity. So now I go with my original accent and it gives me more self-confidence."
Roland Sintos Coloma, a professor at the University of Toronto's Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies, finds the concept of reducing accents disturbing.
"This speaks to a certain kind of linguistic racism," Prof. Coloma said, adding that the idea of "making North American customers comfortable is silly, especially when you consider that there isn't even a standard Canadian English accent. A person who lives in the Atlantic provinces will not sound the same as someone from the Prairies or Ontario," he noted.
But Randall Hansen, a Canada Research Chair in immigration and governance at the University of Toronto, said the tendency toward multiculturalism should be tempered with pragmatism.
"It seems to me a kind of vacuous political correctness to suggest that acquiring a local accent won't provide, in general terms, an advantage in the business world," he said. "There is a lot of social-psychological research that has indicated when you speak the same language and have the same accent, that a person will assume … that you have a commonality."
York University's Schulich School of Business brought in Ms. Gross to help some of its MBA students with communication skills. The school said her courses have been popular with international students and recent immigrants since they were launched three years ago.
"Some of the consistent feedback we were getting from our recruiters was that some of our students were selling themselves short in interviews," explained Lisa Pierosara at York's Career Development Centre.
"It's not so much about getting rid of your accent, or improving your articulation of a particular sound," she said. "It was more about English clarity and presentation skills."