Getting a Job by Hiding Your Ethnic Name

by Michael Haberman on December 10, 2009 · 0 comments


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So says William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. But many people today would disagree. In the New York Times Michael Lou writes about “Whitening the Resume(Free registration required to read) In this article he talks about African American job candidates taking the “blackness” out of their names, schools, experience and references in order to get a foot in the door for an interview. Although regrettable, it is not a new phenomenon. A couple of decades ago women were taking the “femaleness” out of their names by using intials. Asians and Middle Easterners were “Americanizing” their names. Even earlier many Italians and Germans were doing the same thing. Hispanics were/are reducing the size of their names by dropping the several family names in their complete names. People will do what they perceive will give them an edge, especially in these “downturn days.” In the 80’s even young white men were changing their names by initializing their first name and going by their middle name because that “appeared more executive.” People even do it regardless of age, sex, race, etc. just because they have a name they don’t like. Agnes Susan Smith may is not going to feel her name says youthful and vibrant, so she drops the Agnes and becomes Susan. (Apologies to all Agnes out there.)

Is it right that they feel compelled to do this? Not really. Is it reality, perhaps, the research says so, anyway. Names are very powerful. What we hang on our children can boost or scar them. They can be trendy for the time but become dated with the passage of time. My contempories, many of whom were hippies, named their children Bridge, River, Summer, Spring, Flower, Dweezil, MoonChild, Chastity, etc. I am surprised I have never met “Oh Wow Man”. So you parents out there think about what you are going to do to that little child who will someday be an 80 year old with that moniker.

Back to the potential discriminatory decision made on the basis of someone’s name. I would hope that recruiters would look beyond that. Perhaps we should have a universal process for just calling someone “Candidate #_____”. ( I do seem to recall something like this in the past.) But let’s face it, discrimination, though somewhat diminished from three decades ago, does still exist. (See my post on The Big ISM: Racism.) But not all recruiters are lillywhite males. Many are female, many are “of color.” So my question to them is “How do you react when you get a resume with an obvious ethnic name?” “Do you screen for ‘whiteness’?” The same holds true for managers. Not all are white. Not all are males. Will a black female manager with a name like Mary Wilson have a negative reaction to a black female candidate named Eboni?

I don’t know the answer to this. I would like some guidance. Someone tell me that ethnicity is totally ignored in their organization and people are only hired on the basis of their qualification. Make us feel good that progress is being made.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR December 11, 2009 at 10:03 am

This was sent to me by email. I asked if I could post it anonymously and was told yes.

"Good post. I went in another direction with the Agnes Susan Smith. It wasn't age, I immediately jumped to her initials, ASS! (might show where my mind is at)

I think both ethnic names and known minority school attendance is noticed, particularly when hiring for a skill position like mechanical engineer. May not be completely fair, but personal experience tells you to."

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Jessica Lee - Fistful of Talent December 11, 2009 at 10:58 am

five or so years ago, i actually had the pleasure of being charged with an EEO claim for discrimination based on name. as a result of that, even though it wasn't substantiated, my company at that time wanted us to try to establish a process of evaluating and screening resumes with names stripped. it didn't last for long though as we found that not knowing who the person was hindered our process. 

on paper, someone can look interesting or qualified but if i or others i work with know someone at their current organization, or maybe a current staff member worked at that company, i want that intel on the candidate. i'm going to ferret out who they are and what they've done if i have the ability to through my relationships to help cement the decision of whether to consider the candidate for interview. and now, being in DC in a hyperconnected industry, that ability is even more important and i can't fathom stripping names from resumes. who you are and the relationships you have matter in the industries i've recruited in and i am interested in that from the get go for all candidates.

name discrimination is still an issue though, i understand that… and i have my own biases especially when i think about how my parents also named me pebbles instead of jessica. but it's about a more holistic approach that we have to take in adressing stereotypes, biases and issues of discrimination.
i hate the idea of a policy or practice like hiding names in order to remedy an issue like discrimination through names which is just part of a broader problem. it's like slapping on a policy to address a few individuals causing problems and impacting the entire, broad population.

so what so you do? there are no easy fixes… we've gotta tackle this as a broader cultural issue.

love this series… thanks for doing it, mike. 

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