It's No Game When Screening Résumés by a Name

May 1, 2011
When she was 3 years old, Kerrie Hopkins was bitten by a nursery-school classmate named Amy. Thus began two lifelong habits for Hopkins: an avoidance of girls and women named Amy and a desire to understand names and how they can reveal clues about people's personalities.
Hopkins refined her passion into a research-based approach to predicting candidates' ability to land a job based on their names. She spent several years at the University of California at Los Angeles studying personality traits in brain cognitive studies, formulating and testing her theories on onomatology—the science of deducing personality or character based on names. Hopkins now consults companies and organizations internationally, including retailers Babies R Us and Best Buy and hotel chain Embassy Suites.
“A careful examination of names can reveal clues about a job candidate's prospective success,” says Hopkins, who notes that how the name is spelled as well as whether the candidate uses a nickname is important to an accurate interpretation. She says clients will bring her in on C-level searches to cast the deciding vote among two or three candidates.
Although most people involved in seeking talent aren't formally trained in onomatology, studies have shown that recruiters and hiring managers—consciously or not—assess candidates on the basis of a name. John Cotton, a management professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee is co-author of the 2008 research publication, The ‘Name Game:' Affective and Hiring Reactions to First Names. Cotton, whose Ph.D. is in psychology, and his colleagues discovered that common names were best liked and most likely to be hired.
Unusual names were least liked and unlikely to be hired, while Russian and African-American names fell somewhere in between but were still much less likely to be hired.
“People like people who are similar to themselves,” says Cotton, who advises prospective parents to make safe choices when it comes to naming their babies. Names can be self-fulfilling prophecies, he adds. “A lot of research shows that people tend to perform according to expectations.”
A landmark 2001 experiment by the National Bureau of Economic Research fellows Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan demonstrated that a “white sounding” name on a résumé yielded as many callbacks as an additional eight years of experience, and that it yielded 50 percent more callbacks.

In their National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper titled Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination, the authors noted discrimination levels were statistically uniform across all the occupation and industry categories covered in the experiment and that discrimination levels were no lower for federal contractors, larger employers and employers who explicitly state that they are equal opportunity employers.
This is troubling, says Don Meade, a labor and employment lawyer with Priddy Cutler Miller and Meade in Louisville, Kentucky. Screening out candidates on the basis of name “violates every known form of discrimination law: national origin, ethnicity and race. It constitutes discrimination per se and would not require much proof.”
The courts have upheld the notion of name discrimination. When Mamdouh el-Hakem filed a lawsuit in 2004 against BJY Inc. because his supervisor persistently called him “Manny” over repeated objections, a jury and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in el-Hakem's favor.
“A group's ethnic characteristics encompass more than its members' skin color and physical traits” and names “are often a proxy for race and ethnicity,” the judge wrote.
What's a job candidate with an unusual name to do, wonders Virginia Hemby, professor of business communication and entrepreneurship at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. As an adviser to graduating students, she's unsure what to tell them.
“I do tell them to be sure to keep ethnic, personal and religious information off of their résumés, but have wondered whether to tell them to use their initials. My Asian students almost always assume a common American first name,” she says.
Ann Steinberg, director of job placement at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California, says her challenge is great enough already.
“We have a 19 percent unemployment rate in our area,” she says of Lancaster, a city of 145,000 in the Southern California high desert. “When employers post job openings, there will be 10 times as many applicants as there were four years ago. Although I can see small employers expediting the hiring process by weeding out unpronounceable names, many use applicant tracking systems.”
Technology can help recruiters avoid unconscious bias, says Susan Vitale, chief strategic officer for Hazlet, New Jersey-based iCIMS, whose talent management software offers users several options for keeping candidate names hidden.
“Although online applications and resumes include names, clients do not need them for searching and sorting,” she says. Vitale says iCIMS clients sign a waiver certifying that the answers to voluntary Equal Employment Opportunity reporting questions will not be used for screening.
That's advisable, Meade says.
“Employers must constantly adopt best [recruiting] practices to avoid pitfalls,” he says. “There is no business justification for pre-screening on the basis of names. If your business does it, you are vulnerable.”
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