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People Will Judge You Based on Your Name

This article was written by in Career and Work. 19 comments.


Humans are by nature judgmental, and there are good reasons for this. Even though it is often premature, judging quickly helps people make critical decisions with limited information. That limited information, when combined with prejudices or generalizations, can result in poor decisions.

An interesting article from CNN Money asks if your name can prevent you from getting a job. Absolutely. If you have the “wrong” name — wrong in the eyes or ears of the reviewer — you are less likely to be called for an interview after sending a résumé identical to someone with the “right” name.

The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study a few years ago in which the authors responded to 1,300 employment ads, sending out 5,000 résumés. In addition to keeping recruiters and hiring managers busy, they measured that résumés featuring names like Emily Walsh and Greg Baker would receive responses 50% more often than those featuring names like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones. When comparing résumés featuring good qualifications with those featuring superb qualifications, the superb applicant has a 30% higher chance of being called if the name on the résumé sounds “white,” whereas superb applicants with a “non-white” name do not see an increased probability.

While this doesn’t measure the likelihood of getting a job after an interview, it does point out the initial judgment due to nothing more than a name. If you feel your name could be an initial detriment to your job search, there are several options, but none of them are very good.

1. Legally change your name. Your name is a symbol of your identity. Decades ago, it was common for immigrants to the Untied States to Americanize their names, and it wasn’t such a bad idea for those looking for a new life in the country. This practice is less common now, whether it is due to pride or the shrinking world. I believe for many people, changing a name to fit in with a prejudicial world is too much of a compromise to make.

2. Take on an Americanized nickname. Interestingly, it is apparently common for people born in China to take an English name but prefer to use their Chinese given name when living in the United States. Taking the opposite approach may help you fight the initial prejudice in the United States. If you feel your name is holding you back when searching for a job, keeping your last name but offering an American nick name might help you get your foot in the door.

3. Use only your first initial on your résumé. It would be interesting to see a study that measures the results of this tactic. It may only provide an advantage if the applicant’s last name doesn’t inspire a judgment.

I agree with the author of the CNN article: focus on the aspects of your image that you can control without sacrificing your identity. But this is only from my perspective as someone with a name that doesn’t sound very foreign. With the unemployment rate in the United States still high, perhaps more people are willing to compromise more for an advantage — or to level the playing field.

Published or updated September 17, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Matt

I’d suggest “Max Power” for anyone looking to change their name to help their careers.

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avatar Ron

I had a friend who would only put his first two initials and his last name on business cards. That way people were forced to call him “Mr. Fowler.”

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avatar Stefanie

This is not about a name per se, its about racism and xenophobia, pure and simple. As such, no one shoudl be changing their name, or the way its spelled out or looks on their resume, they should be fighting the system that is racist in the first place.

While you mention that none of your solutions are particularly good ones, I find it disturbing that you would suggest any changes for applicants at all – its not their problem, its the companies/ individuals that wouldn’t hire them that is the problem. And why would anyone WANT to work in that kind of racist environment anyway?

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avatar Ellen @ MoneyLounge.net

I would have to say that the practice of changing one’s name to Americanize it is not something that has died down. In fact, I can think of several people close to me who have changed their names for this reason: one, a man who owned a business and went by ‘Tim’ as opposed to his Vietnamese name, another, a friend searching for a job in a lucrative field who changed her last name from her father’s Chinese name, to her step-father’s very American last name.

It’s a shame that people are afraid to hire or even interview others because of this difference. Unfortunately, we have yet to see major strides made in this area.

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avatar MyJourney

Stephanie,

“As such, no one shoudl be changing their name, or the way its spelled out or looks on their resume, they should be fighting the system that is racist in the first place.”

Kind of hard to fight the system when you can’t get a job because your name sounds ghetto?

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avatar Robert

This is a very, very interesting topic. It’s a racial topic, but I can see how having a common, recognizable name can give you the leg up when submitting resumes. It’s not right, but it’s a fact of life. Fantastic post.

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avatar David@DINKS Finance

This is very interesting. It’s unfortunate that this is true, but I think it will change within this century. There is so much diversity in the workplace, really no matter where you go, that I think eventually names won’t matter much.

So, please, don’t make this change how you plan on naming your child!

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avatar Terry

I went to (a parochial) high school with Doug Perry. Found out from my girlfriend (he lived in her neighborhood, not mine) his parents had Americanized their surname from Perez.

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avatar Terry

Ron:

What is the best way to address correspondence (e.g. resume/cover letter) to someone identified only by initials (and is therefore of unknown gender), e.g. J.R. Smith?

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avatar MLR

My Journey — Your response to Stefanie hints at some racist undertones, too. What exactly makes Jamal “ghetto?”

&

Stefanie — Sorry, but your “solution” is pretty naive. So the person should single-handedly forgo potential job opportunities to “fight” the system? I bet they lose that battle.

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avatar MyJourney

There might be racial undertones (not racist), but racial…just like you don’t see many white people running around with the name Lakisha or just like you don’t see many black people running around with the name of Carmela.

Check out a freaknomic commentary on the same subject:
http://www.slate.com/id/2116449/

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avatar MLR

That’s fine and all… you didn’t say it was a culturally significant name, though. You said it was ghetto. What makes the name ghetto?

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avatar My Journey

MRL,

I am confused…When did I say Jamal was ghetto? There are certain names that give a connatation.

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avatar MLR

The two names cited in this study were Lakisha and Jamal. As such, your implication that these people can’t get jobs because their names sound ghetto would apply to the two names in the study. Lakisha and especially Jamal do not scream ghetto to me. In fact, I can’t think of a name that does.

If a certain name screams ghetto to you, is that not a sign of your prejudice and/or racism? Racism may be debatable, but that is pretty much a text book definition of prejudice. Connotations are internally contrived, so why don’t you be step 1 in eradicating the problem… realize that your prejudices are a step backwards.

avatar ctreit

We have all kinds of prejudices. Just yesterday I was reading an article about teachers having prejudices against certain first names. There is not much these little fellows can do about that. Now we know that we don’t only have to worry about being too dark, too short, too fat,….

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avatar Writer's Coin

I think about this all the time because my name is foreign. The thing is, I look as American as they come so when people see me I sometimes wonder if they’re like “Whoa, not what I thought.”

But I also have visions of HR people sifting through resumes going, “Hey Becky, look at how many letters this guy has in his last name!” before chucking it in the garbage. I never worried about it until a year or so ago because I’ve never been treated differently. I look just like everyone else, it’s the name that might throw you off.

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avatar Neal@wealthpilgrim.com

Bold and brave topic Mr. F.

I think everyone can agree that the need to adapt to prejudice is shameful. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to change your name. As someone said before me, you can’t fight the system if you don’t have a job.

Also, I wish this problem was restricted to the USA but it isn’t. My sister-in-law lives outside the USA and she had to change her name in order to get into law school.

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avatar Chalkbored

There are various considerations here. One is the concern that a prejudicial bias will affect your chances of getting a job. How much bias there is may depend on region as well as the type of industry. Another is the idea that by changing who you are, you are accommodating that bias. And would you want to work at a place that has such a bias to begin with? It’s not clear that one should or shouldn’t change their name to improve their job hunting chances. If you are in San Francisco, and you are notably proficient in your field, you probably have no need to do so. But for others who are struggling to find work, anything to improve one’s chances might seem a desirable option. Still, finding a job in the current market is difficult anyway. You might change your name and find that you still can’t get work.

My own view is that the practicality of changing one’s name is not all that certain, and the accommodation factor is pretty sinister. People will judge you on the color of your skin as well. Should one bleach his/her skin before a job interview?

Also, MyJourney (who made an idiotic “ghetto” comment) posted (and obviously didn’t read) a very good article. It claims that the correlation of name and life outcome doesn’t indicate a causational relationship. “If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes.” So according to this article by economist Steven Levitt, a person with a unique name may not get the job, but changing his/her name won’t get him/her the job either.

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avatar Frank D Morrow

formally souding long names tead to mak the person souol more sophistifcate and learned

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