“Ethnic-sounding first names” and getting the job
Shuki. Soukias. Raheem. Samir. Jamal. Lakisha. Atholl. Tyronne. Magestic. Did you know that something as simple as a first name makes the difference between whether you even get the interview? Last weekend we were doing a focus group and one of the mock jurors had a very unique first name. One of a kind. She was African-American. It reminded us of this research and we wanted to post about it since the findings never exactly went viral (as they perhaps should have).
We are only going to cover one research article but there are several out there if you are interested in learning more. This one is more recent and that is why we chose it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if the studies are 10 years old or fairly recent: they all say the same thing. When we see names that seem ethnic to us, we are less interested in interviewing the applicant. It comes down to what is familiar and thus comfortable for us. We like common names more than unique names. And we want to hire people who have common names so that we are more comfortable.
After reviewing the literature, researchers hypothesized that common names would be liked more than unique or ethnic names. To examine the hypothesis, they completed three studies. First, researchers tested sample first names on “working adults and undergraduate business students”. They included “white” (e.g., John, Mary, Robert, Susan), “Russian” (e.g., Vladamir, Sergei, Oksana, Svetlana), “African-American” (e.g., Tyronne, Jamal, Latoya, Tanisha), and “unique” (e.g., Ajax, Atholl, Magestic, Tangerine) names in their sample. The goal of this study was to make sure the names “fit” for the participants sense of White, Russian, African-American and Unique first names.
Participants rated the “white” names as common, the “Russian” names as “likely not American”, and saw the African-American names and the “unique” names as different (as opposed to common). Further, common names were more likable, African-American and Russian names were somewhere in the middle, and unique names were liked the least.
In the second study, 166 university students enrolled in part-time graduate business courses (61% male, 39% female; 78% White, 4% African-American, 2% Hispanic, 12% Asian/Pacific Islander; and 3% “other”; average age 30 years; average work experience 8.4 years) were selected. The participants in this study were asked to evaluate the names in terms of how unique they were, how much they liked the names, and “how willing they would be to hire people with those names”.
In this study, again, participants liked the unique names less and were less likely to be hired. The “best names” (i.e., most liked and most likely to be hired) in this study were Mary and Robert and the “worst names” (i.e., least liked and least likely to be hired) were Atholl and Magestic. African-American and Russian names were seen as being in between these two extreme in both likability and willingness to hire.
So, in the third study, the researchers wanted to check actual hiring behavior to see if the same findings occurred again. In this study, participants were “105 working adults enrolled in a part-time MBA program who had not participated in either of the earlier two studies”. Average age was 28 (range was 21 to 47); they averaged 6.3 years of work experience; 55% reported they had hiring experience; 82% were White, 2% were African-American, 4% were Asian or Pacific Islander, 3% were Hispanic, and 2% were “other” (7% did not report race); 62% were male and 31% were female (7% did not report gender).
Participants in this study were told to imagine they were hiring a new administrative assistant. They were given a real newspaper ad for an administrative assistant and a booklet with 8 resumes and 8 sets of questions regarding hiring. All resumes were designed to make them reasonable candidates for the administrative assistant position. 4 resumes were males and four females with one name taken from each of the four name categories. Participants were asked to evaluate how likely they would be to hire the individual candidates.
We know you think you know what is coming. And (at least in this instance) you are likely wrong. There were no effects by name type or gender. The researchers were surprised by this (as were we) given the strong findings in the first two studies and the plethora of research on the topic.
They offer several ideas for why this happened–chief among them that the participants (as MBA students) wanted to be seen positively and so they were very careful to respond in a socially positive manner. Further, the participants took 15 to 20 minutes to review the 8 resumes and this is unlikely to happen in a regular workplace where supervisors scan resumes to make a rough cut and first impressions are more likely to determine whether a resume goes on for an interview or is discarded.
What the authors do say is that their results would indicate that rejecting unique names is not simply due to racial prejudice. If that were the case, the African-American names would have been the “worst” names for getting an interview. Instead, the studies found that how unique a name was determined which names would go in the “most disliked” category. The researchers think recruiters may well react negatively to names that are unique and thus not recruit or interview those candidates with unique names as often as they choose to recruit and interview those with common names. Anecdotal evidence confirms this theory, both in the States and abroad.
The most obvious omission in the research studies above regards Hispanic names. Would they trigger special treatment? Even in 2008 (when the research was published) the prominence of Hispanic employees in the US workforce would have made inclusion in the study obvious. So we will have to wait a bit to find out whether Javier should change his name to James, and Amelia stands a better chance if she is known as Emily. It would be a shame, but then again, none of us choose our names, so judging one another for the decisions made by our parents when we were born is probably always a shame.
So should people with unique first names change their names for career purposes? The EEOC would beg to differ and may indeed be differing (although it is not confirmed) with the owner of the Whitten Hotel in Taos, New Mexico. This is instead an issue for every organization to take responsibility for reversing. We may not be comfortable with ethnic sounding names but that is very much our problem and not the problem of the individual with the ethnic name. Here’s what you can do:
Use initials on resumes rather than names (and no pictures!) so each candidate is evaluated based on skills and abilities rather than assumptions about names or faces (and the ethnic or racial information they may communicate).
Educate your hiring managers and HR staff about ethnic first name biases. In the process, make it absolutely clear that not only is it a foolish policy to select people based on what their parents thought were nice names, it is likely illegal if construed to be racially tinged. And it usually is.
Promote a work environment that reflects the changing demographics of the country (and the world).
Cotton, J., O’Neill, B., & Griffin, A. (2008). The “name game”: affective and hiring reactions to first names Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23 (1), 18-39 DOI: 10.1108/02683940810849648