How Important is Your Name In Getting Job Interviews?

In today's edition of "I am really grossed out that this is probably still a thing," several studies show that a foreign sounding surname or first name may affect your chances of getting a call for a job interview. This may be an especially relevant data point to the marital surname decisions of people were either born with or are considering changing their names to those that are traditionally more "white" or "African-American," regardless of your own ethnicity.

"Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal: A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination" found that when they sent out nearly 5,000 resumes in response to "over 1300 ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers in the sales, administrative support, clerical and customer services fields," resumes with "very White sounding names" elicited about 50% more callbacks than "very African American sounding names."  The researchers typically sent out 4 resumes in response to each ad, two high quality and two low quality resumes, with one of each randomly assigned an "African American sounding name." The study also noted that while the high quality resumes with "white sounding names" received a 30% improvement in callbacks over the "white sounding names" low quality resumes, this bump did not occur for resumes with "African American sounding names." For what it's worth, this article was published in 2002, so it's entirely possible that this information is slightly out of date. 

photo: CC BY

photo: CC BY

Two more recent studies came to different conclusions on what role names play in employment decisions.

A 2012 study, "Indiscriminate Discrimination: A correspondence test for ethnic homophily in the Chicago Labor Market" found a similar but less marked bias in favor of "white sounding" names (which this study referred to as "Anglo-Saxon," which I have quibbles with as a history major, but that's an issue for another time). This one found that resumes with "Anglo-Saxon" names generated nearly 33% more callbacks than identical resumes with either African-American or "foreign" names (the "foreign" names were designed to be of an unidentifiable ethnic origin to most Americans). 

A study published last year found that resumes with a variety of traditionally "white" (Anderson and Thompson),  "African-American" (Washington and Jefferson), and "Hispanic" (Hernandez and Garcia) surnames were not treated in a manner that indicated systematic employer preferences for applicants from particular race groups. However, the researchers themselves acknowledged to the Chicago Tribune that last names may be a weak signal of race. "Though 90 percent of people with the last name Washington are black and 75 percent of those named Jefferson are black, 'there is the fair criticism that maybe no one knows that,' Koedel said."

So does this sort of racial bias still exist in hiring? It's hard to know, but it seems likely. As a white woman myself, I'm never going to discount another person's stories of racial discrimination. That's not my job in this case; my role is to listen and learn and be the best ally I can be. As an article in Forbes pointed out, "'We're not claiming that employers engage in discriminatory behavior consciously, or that this is necessarily an issue of racism,' wrote Marianne Bertrand, a researcher on the 2002 study. 'It is important to teach people in charge of hiring about the subconscious biases they may have, and figure out a way to change these patterns.'" So hopefully these are trends that can be changed and fixed with effort and work.