The names employers are biased against – and what you can do about it
Parents have a lot of responsibilities and choices when it comes to their kids. How will I make sure they’re getting a balanced diet? Which daycare (and then school) should they go to? How can I improve their table manners? We make these choices for them because we want them to grow up healthy and have the best possible chances for success. So it will come as a shock to learn that one of the first choices we make for them–their name–can have farther reaching consequences than any of those other choices.
Study after study seems to back up the idea that our names rule our destiny in ways we never imagined. We’ve covered how your name (if hard to pronounce) can keep you from being recognized or rewarded at work. We’ve also written that the same effect runs in reverse, with shorter (and thus easier to pronounce) names often receiving higher levels of compensation than longer ones. But what if your name prevented you from even getting an interview?
That’s the sad reality according to a blog post by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, in which she notes that, “Studies show that job applicants with ‘black sounding names’ are less likely to get callbacks than those with ‘white sounding names’ – and applicants called Jennifer are likely to be offered a lower salary than applicants called John.”
If you’re black (or even if you’re part of any ethnic group that isn’t caucasian) I’m sure you’ve experienced racism in person. I wish that wasn’t the case, but the stats are irrefutable. And no, Canada isn’t any better that the U.S. on this issue. But it’s one thing to deal with bias when it’s face-to-face and quite another when you can’t even see its ugly wheels turning. Yet that’s what happens when you submit a resume with a first name like Deshawn, or Aaliyah or Tyrone or Shanice.
To her credit, Sandberg is doing what she can to control for this “unconscious bias” by giving her employees training to help them understand what bias is and how to interrupt and correct for it when it happens at work. In her post, she even offers a link to the presentation part of the training so that others can benefit.
It’s a move in the right direction, but don’t expect miracles. Racism and its accompanying biases aren’t going away anytime soon. So what do you do if your parents–seeking to create a connection with a cultural heritage–gave you a name that others react unkindly to? You could certainly take the high road, and say, “To hell with any company that won’t interview me because of my name,” I’d be tempted to say the same thing. Heck, maybe that becomes the driving force you need to create your own company, in the ultimate expression of free-market defiance! But here’s the problem: You aren’t even going to know why you never got a callback. Maybe it was your experience, your education, your skills, or, maybe it really was your name.
So if you suspect that you’re the victim of unconscious (or even deliberate and conscious) bias due to your name, we humbly suggest this course of action: Change your name.
No, not legally. And not under any circumstances except one–your resume. You don’t even need to do it all of the time. In fact, if you find yourself applying for many jobs, try an experiment. On 50% of the applications, use your real name. On the other half, give yourself a first name (you can probably leave your last name alone) that is as “white” as you can tolerate. Perhaps “Shanice” becomes “Sarah.” You already know that shorter names are better, so maybe it’s “Sue.” It won’t take long to figure out if a pattern to your callbacks emerges.
But isn’t that lying?
Well…. technically, yes. On the other hand, nearly every recruiter will give you this advice: You must edit and alter your resume for every job you apply to. You need to highlight the relevant skills and experiences and de-emphasize the ones that won’t matter. You need to incorporate the right keywords so that resume scanning software thinks you’re a good match (can software be biased? Yes!). So why not tweak your name too? When compared to some of the “lies” our very own editor-in-chief, Peter Harris suggests you consider, a name change barely counts at all.
(In fact Peter told me that when applying for Hospitality and retail jobs as an Anglophone student growing up in Quebec, he had to put the name Pierre Harris on applications in order to get a call back.)
Besides, you’ll be able to rectify that small inaccuracy when you show up to the interview, perhaps by saying “Oh, my favourite uncle always called me Sue so I use that sometimes, but my real name is Shanice, it’s nice to meet you!” Yes, there’s a chance that this small subterfuge will raise the occasional eyebrow, but now that you’re there–in the interview–you’ll be able to wow them with your personality, sophistication and savvy. I’ll bet you could call yourself Her Royal Highness, Gertrude The Magnificent, and you’d still make a great impression.
But at least you will have made an impression, and that is the whole point. If an interviewer is going to be biased against you, there’s not much you can do about it. But you can and you should try.
Simon Cohen is one of Canada’s most experienced Consumer Tech voices. He created Sync.ca, an award-winning Canadian technology blog which had an audience of over 500,000 monthly visitors. He has appeared as a guest numerous times on national TV and radio programmes, including Canada AM, Sync Up (a weekly segment on CTV News Channel) and App Central. He is currently an independent writer and editor contributing to various publications, but you can always find his thoughts and musings on his blog at excitable.ca.