For secretarial staff, who are expected to reflect the image of the company for which they work, the implications of this are enormous - a fact that Jean Briscoe knows all too well. Five years ago, she claims, she was sacked from her telephone receptionist job because her boss didn't like her heavy Birmingham accent. Brummies, after all, are all too often regarded as unintelligent and working-class. Similarly, Louise Yates, the wife of the footballer Steve Yates, claims she was forced to quit three jobs because of constant ribbing of her West Country accent. Some colleagues called her a "yokel" while others even slowed down or spoke more loudly when talking to her. Research by the Institute of Personnel and Development - based on a survey of 30 recruitment consultants - finds that BBC English still remains the accent that opens the most doors. One consultant, Rachel Asquith, explains: "The person answering the phone or greeting clients is often the first point of contact. Just as employers wouldn't employ someone to do that who doesn't dress how they like, most won't consider someone who doesn't sound how they like. Unfortunately, that often means people with a strong regional or working-class accent don't get a look in." Even if they get the job, they may never be promoted.
"Employers may think it doesn't matter how you sound if you're PA to a manager, but being PA to the chief executive is a different matter. They think, `We've spent all this money on corporate logos and posh offices, so we're not going to ruin our image now.' It can make it almost impossible to get a fair chance."
According to Paul Coggle, senior lecturer in modern languages at the University of Kent, however, such attitudes are relaxing - if only in particular industries. After all, he says, accents do go in and out of fashion. Indeed, you'd be hard pushed to find many young people with the clipped upper-class accent of the Forties (think Brian Sewell). Instead, estuary English (think Jonathan Ross) is becoming popular as Britain becomes less class-conscious. "This can be seen particularly clearly within the medical establishment, law and banks," says Coggle. "In the City, cockney is even becoming quite prevalent." But PR, publishing and much or the media, he says, are still favouring BBC English.
Surprisingly, perhaps, foreign accents are popular. "Provided you can be understood clearly, you may even get preferential treatment if you're Continental," says Ashley Mitchell, a careers adviser. "Italian and French women are often seen to portray an `exotic' image as secretaries."
Nevertheless, she claims, regional accents can work in your favour. "For the past three or so years, Mancunian has been considered trendy, while the Scottish accent is considered `honest'. "Mind you, I'd say you've got the best chance of making your accent work for you if you work in the locality." One Edinburgh recruitment consultant remarks that upper- class BBC English in Scotland, "positively incites hostility". Katie Saunders, a PA for an advertising firm, agrees. "I've got a strong Scouse accent and worked in Liverpool for 11 years as a secretary with no problems at all. But as soon as I moved to London five years ago, I found my accent mattered. In one interview, I was told outright that I sounded too `whiny'."
The result? She went for elocution lessons. "I didn't want to lose my accent altogether... my friends and family would be horrified," she says. "But I decided to attempt to soften it a bit." It wasn't easy, however, taking almost a year of weekly, hour-long sessions to get the sound she was after. "But it worked a treat in the end."
However, she found that the way you speak is about much more than accent. "I realised I spoke too quickly and often didn't finish the end of my sentences," she explains. "That made me sound girly and chaotic, irrespective of my regional accent."
Shallow breathing is also a common problem, making women sound young and unprofessional, adds Madelaine Cannon, principal coach at Professional Voice in London. Others don't realise how dull they sound, speaking in a monotone, while an increasing number of women have fallen into a habit of lifting the voice at the end of a sentence. "This may give a relaxed, Australian feel... but it also seems to suggest it has no value," she says.
The good news, according to Coggle, is that younger generations tend to be accent chameleons - rather like Tony Blair. That means they'll use BBC English, say, for an interview, while subconsciously downgrading or changing their tone when talking to friends. What this means for the future is that accents will become less pronounced and, consequently, less likely to be judged.