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.