Monthly Archives: July 2013

What’s in a Name? PLENTY!

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Kim O’Grady, an experienced management consultant in Perth, Australia, couldn’t figure out why his résumé was generating no job leads for more than four months, according to Susanna Kim in He finally realized that companies were turning him down because his gender-neutral first name led them to assume he was a woman. After putting “Mr.” before his name on his résumé, he quickly landed a job. “The sad reality is this shows we all know how real and invasive sexism still is,” he wrote on his blog.

(The following is an excerpt from my free ebook, Stacking the Deck, available at

The names we were given at birth carry with them a significant impact on how we are viewed by others. Recent research suggests that our names also influence how we are perceived by hiring managers, recruiters, and human resource professionals. In some instances, your name can either help or hurt your job chances.

People like what is familiar and similar to them, particularly people with similar values, [1] personalities, [2] and demographic backgrounds.[3] Research has also demonstrated that unique names (unusual names or unique spellings) suggest less attractive characteristics than names that are more ordinary, and were seen as less desirable.[4] People with nicknames were found to imply less successful characteristics[5] while males with longer names connoted more ethical concern and more success.[6] Candidates with formal versions of a name (Robert instead of Bob or Bobby; Katherine instead of Kate or Katie) elicit different inferences about personality[7] while rare names were rated lower in socio-economic status than more common names.[8] These implied characteristics are perceptions—not necessarily reality—but they can be obstacles in the process.

In many instances, race or ethnic origin can be suggested by an applicant’s name. Since the early 1970s, African-American parents increasingly chose African-sounding names for their children for incorporating a positive, healthy cultural identity, and this pattern continues today. One study found that African-sounding names tend to be more common among African-Americans in lower socio-economic status.[9] However, the same study found that African-American names are unrelated to quality of life after considering education, parents’ education, age/marital status of mother, and other factors.

What does this mean for job candidates? The results of the study showed how choice of names can in some professions and careers influence who gets called for a job interview[10]:

  • Résumés with African-sounding names received fewer callbacks than the Caucasian names
  • Higher quality résumés elicited more callbacks with Caucasian names, but the higher quality had no impact on callbacks when paired with an African-American name

In 2004, a 20/20 segment on ABC posted 22 pairs of names with identical names on well-known job websites. Caucasian names received more attention than African-American sounding names.[11]

For résumés that are sent first to human resources, assigning a number or using only the candidate’s initials can help mask ethnic origins or racial makeup, and help minimize any  subconscious prejudice that could creep into others assessing a candidate’s overall qualifications for a position. In fact, one theory suggests that individuals resort to “habits of mind” when engaging much of our behavior without giving it too much attention.[12] Essentially, there is no conscious malice aforethought in such situations and is more likely a human factor effect.

For cover letters and résumés sent directly to hiring managers without human resource filtering of identifying information, there is the possibility that the hiring manager may (or may not) assign some value judgment to any ethnic/racial clues from the candidate’s name. That’s just another one of those inescapable human factors. Human resources must work closely with recruiters and hiring managers so as to avoid any habits-of-mind situations from occurring during candidate screening.

[1] Turban, D.B and Jones, A.P. (1988), “Supervisor-subordinate similarity: types, effects, and mechanisms”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vo. 73 No. 2, pp. 228-34.

[2] DiMarco, N. (1974), “Supervisor-subordinate life style and interpersonal need compatibilities as determinants of subordinate’s attitudes toward the supervisor”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 575-8.

[3] Glaman, J., Jones, A. and Rozell, R. (1996), “The effects of co-worker similarity on the emergence of affect in work teams”, Group and Organization Management, Vol. 21 No. 2 pp. 192-215.

[4] Mehrabian, A. (2001), “Characteristics attributed to individuals on the basis of their first names”, Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, Vol. 127 No. 1, pp. 59-88.

[5] Mehrabian, A. and Piercy, M. (1993a), “Differences in positive and negative connotations of nicknames and given names”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 133 No. 5, pp. 737-9.

[6] Mehrabian and Pearcy, Ibid.

[7] Leirer, V., Hamilton, D. and Carpenter, S. (1982), “Common first names as cues for inferences about personality”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 8 No. 4, pp. 712-8.

[8] Joubert, C. (1994), “Relation of name frequency to the perception of social class in given names”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 79, pp. 623-6.

[9] Fryer, R. and Levitt, S. (2004), “The causes and consequences of distinctly black names”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 119 No. 3, pp. 767-805.

[10] Ibid., Fryer and Levitt

[11] Ruppel, G. (Producer) (2004), “The Name Game”, ABC’s 20/20, August 20, ABC News, New York, NY.

[12] Louis, M.R. and Sutton, R.I. (1991), “Switching cognitive gears: from habits of mind to active thinking”, Human Relations, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 55-76.


Using Direct Mail Strategies to Create an Effective Cover Letter

In my workshops, presentations, and personal consultations, I am always emphasizing how the best cover letters include elements of great advertising copywriting. A  well-written direct mail piece emphasizes product or service benefits to the customer; a well-written cover letter emphasizes the benefits of your expertise to the hiring manager. A well-written direct mail piece retains control of the next step by asking for the sale in the closing paragraph; a well-written cover letter takes control of the next contact by telling the hiring manager to expect a follow-up phone call to continue the dialogue about how the candidate’s expertise is just what the hiring manager has been looking for.

Step 1

Create a flowchart describing your expertise (skills, knowledge, experience and most importantly, your achievements) and why that expertise is necessary. Before you write a single word on your cover letter, it is vital to establish in your own mind what your specialty is—your professional brand offer–what it does, and why the hiring manager cannot live without it. This may sound simple on the surface, but this step requires deep thought and consideration. Really think about what you have to offer and the benefits that the hiring manager will reap by hiring you. Write down all of these points and refer to this list as you draft your cover letter. The flowchart should cover the following: The Need(s) of the hiring manager, the Solution you provide, and Benefits to the hiring manager.

Step 2

Establish the need and a link to the hiring manager.  Do this in the first sentence and paragraph of your letter. You know the challenges and issues facing the hiring manager and the particular profession or industry. Use this paragraph to drive home two points: First, that you and the hiring manager have something in common, and second, that your expertise is the solution he or she needs.

Step 3

Offer the hiring manager a solution. Now that you have established that link between you and the hiring manager and mentioned the challenges, you need to provide him with a solution. This section of your cover letter should inform the hiring manager that your expertise is the answer to their problem — the expertise that he has been looking for, supported with proven past accomplishments (not duties or responsibilities) pertinent to the position. This section should be written in positive and enthusiastic tones.

Step 4

Drive home the benefits that the hiring manager will reap from your expertise. You’ve gotten the hiring manager to this point — he knows he needs what you have to offer, and he knows it’s going to help him in some way. Now, he needs to know the benefits of that expertise if he hires you.  This is an emotional section for the reader. Purchases are often made not based on logic, but rather emotion.

Step 5

Consider providing a special offer. You’ve laid the groundwork for your pitch, now it’s time to drive home the point that you are the problem solving expert he has been looking for. This suggestion may only be for the brave, but consider offering the hiring manager an enticement that will get him to take some action, such as a “try me before you hire me” option. Offer to work for free for a week as a “tryout” for the position. The job market is always highly competitive regardless of the state of the economy, and you need to be able to offer the hiring manager something that will get him to give more serious consideration to hiring you. The “try me before you hire me” approach may be just the trick. Even if a hiring manager doesn’t take you up on that offer (most won’t for various policy or legal reasons), the fact that you willing to work for free for a week sends a strong message about your confidence and your ability to hit the ground running. If it works, it’s a way to instantaneously eliminate the competition for the position—as long as you deliver during that week.

Step 6

Reinforce your message and control the next contact. The last paragraph should be used to reinforce the entire cover letter. Remind the hiring manager why he needs your expertise, what it will do for him, and how that value-add will contribute to the company’s success. Always initiate the next contact in your cover letter. Never leave the next contact to the hiring manager, as in “I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.” Don’t sell the hiring manager on your expertise and why he needs it only to then leave him hanging in your last paragraph. Instead, summarize with, “These examples illustrate how my expertise can work for you and <company name>. I will call you in a few days to further discuss how I am that value-add resource you have been looking for.” Then make the phone call. The key to getting a job offer is creating familiarity with your name with the hiring manager throughout the entire hiring process because the most qualified candidate doesn’t necessarily receive the job offer—it’s often the person who made the most favorable impression.


24th Annual ACFE Fraud Conference, JobBots, and Mock Interviews

I just returned from speaking at the 24th Annual Conference of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) in Las Vegas, Nevada. Quite an impressive organization, with 2,500+ anti-fraud experts in attendance at the conference, which was held at the magnificent Aria Resort and Casino.

My three 15-minute “Makeover” presentations (cover letter, résume, and interview strategies) on the exhibit hall stage were very well attended and received, and my 80-minute breakout session, “Stacking the Deck: Make Yourself the Hiring Manager’s Candidate of Choice” was even filmed (in part) by a crew from CNBC, perhaps for a future program on the world’s largest anti-fraud organization. I’m sure the footage of my presentation will end up on the cutting room floor since there were far more stellar personalities lined up to speak (Actor Stacy Keach, narrator of CNBC’s American Greed; former Enron CFO, Andy Fastow; and Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York).

It appears that my message hit all the right interest levels according to the speaker evaluations, though I am perplexed as to why each year in the “Constructive Changes for Making the Presentation More Effective” field on the form, one or two people blame me for such things as “the room is too cold/too hot”, “we need tables to write on”, or “there should be a handout” (even though I emphasized at the onset of my presentation that the conference paper–included in everyone’s registration packet–had all the details of the presentation).

JobBots: Why You Probably Didn’t Get that Job You Were Highly Qualified For

I came across an article in a magazine on the flight out to Las Vegas for the ACFE Conference that described how “JobBots”– software embedded in many applicant tracking systems–are used to screen pools of online applications and online résumé submissions. According to a 2012 CIO magazine article, JobBots are error-prone apps that eliminate “75 percent of job-seekers’ chances of landing an interview as soon as they submit their résumés, no matter how qualified they may be.”  Peter Cappelli, author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs stated that JobBots are “really cheap but not very effective in finding the people companies want.”

The best use of JobBots is as an initial filter to screen out applicants who fail to meet minimum job requirements. At that point, skilled recruiters, HR professionals, and hiring managers should take over. However, with the advent of job boards and other online job sites, thousands of résumés now flood HR departments. With the human resource function now having to shift more emphasis on federal and state compliance with all types of legislation, and toward more comprehensive strategic corporate objectives, increasingly the applicant screening function is being turned over to JobBots.

The problem is that humans can spot talent better than any software algorithm, and this is especially true in the high-tech world where increasingly the types and degrees of specialization require a trained eye to spot. One HR representative affirmed what I’ve been preaching in my presentations for a few years now, that “A great résumé gets noticed, but at most companies it’s about who referred you.”

Mock Interviews

I participated in several mock interviews with ACFE attendees, hoping to coach them in ways that would improve their interview skills. Everyone I worked with was intelligent, articulate, personable, and had impressive expertise. Yet, nearly everyone missed the chance to sell me on who they are (not what they are) when asked: “So, tell me about yourself.” Invariably, each person launched into a verbal narrative about their experience, expertise, and previous positions. They missed a golden opportunity to wax eloquent (within reason) about who they are as a person. When I brought this to their attention and gave them a “retry”, nearly everyone got it.

However, in an interview, there are no second chances to get it right!

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