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 ABCNews.com. 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 www.donnleviejrstrategies.com.)

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.


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