Samir, Is Your Name Holding You Back?

Why you should care

Because first impressions can hurt your chances.

Nitesh Patel suspects that he’s struggling to find work because of his ethnicity. To test his theory, he plans to start sending out applications with the alias Jason Hunter to see whether he’s facing a pattern of discrimination.

The Orlando, Florida–based 53-year-old isn’t alone in feeling disadvantaged by his name. According to a recent Canadian study, even in urban centers in the liberal land of Justin Trudeau, employers respond better to some names than to others.

Candidates with Asian-sounding names on résumés saw callback rates of up to 32 percent lower than those whose names sounded Anglo.

Researchers sent 3,000 résumés, evenly divided among Anglo- and Asian-sounding names of three types to firms in Montreal and Toronto. The latter names included Chinese, Indian and Pakistani ones (e.g., Samir Sharma, Fatima Sheikh), and researchers mirrored credentials, experience and incidence of foreign education. While there was little difference in callback rates among the three types of foreign-sounding names, those with a foreign education or experience saw callback rates that were 53 percent lower, according to the study’s co-author Rupa Banerjee, associate professor of human resource management and organizational behavior at Ryerson University.

The study was a follow-up to earlier research conducted at the University of Toronto, where researchers sent 7,000 fake résumés to firms in three major Canadian cities with jobs in various fields posted for applicants with a bachelor’s degree and English fluency. The résumés were split up between those with English-sounding names and those with Chinese, Indian or Greek names, all with equal credentials. The result? The Anglo-named applicants were about 35 to 40 percent more likely to hear the phone ring.

You get a first impression from looking at someone’s name you can’t pronounce, and immediately a stereotype comes to your head.

Philip Oreopoulos, University of Toronto

Philip Oreopoulos, a University of Toronto economics professor and co-author of that earlier study, was surprised by the numbers, and wanted to get at the source of the bias. When you ask employers why the gap exists, he says, they tend to point to concerns about English-language and social skills. So in the second phase of their research, Oreopoulos and his colleagues accounted for those issues by boldly indicating that the more ethnically named applicants had great English and social skills. But that didn’t boost callback rates.

What it really comes down to is something Oreopoulos calls subconscious or implicit discrimination. “You get a first impression from looking at someone’s name you can’t pronounce, and immediately a stereotype comes to your head,” he explains. It’s not intentional, he says — managers don’t necessarily want to make decisions based on stereotypes — “but you have this first, immediate subconscious reaction.” Ideally, in reading about an applicant’s qualifications, that initial impression would become better-informed and evolve. In reality, though, the first impression sticks. “Without you realizing it, you put that résumé in the Do Not Interview pile because of this subconscious reaction,” Oreopoulos says, noting that it’s even worse when decision-makers are rushed or stressed.

Conscious discrimination may also play a part. “I really do think that many employers wouldn’t realize they have this issue going on,” Banerjee says, though she warns that some may be doing it consciously — she has heard of employers with unwritten policies about hiring only people who will “fit in.”

Firms need to understand that the bias exists and take steps to train employees to recognize their biases and change their behaviors, Banerjee argues. The best approach? Blind hiring. Masking names in the first instance “would remove [bias] at least at the early stages,” Banerjee says, noting that many British firms have tried blind hiring with great success in recent years. In Canada, blind hiring is rare, but it has been proposed by a member of Parliament for use at the federal level. This would at least enable more applicants with non-Anglo names to get their foot in the door.

Apart from being unfair, biased hiring also does a disservice to employers. They can’t hire the best candidates if they’re not giving all applicants equal consideration. Banerjee points to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as a successful implementer of blind hiring: Since 1980, the orchestra has auditioned musicians from behind a screen; that, says Banerjee, “has really changed the profile of the TSO in terms of gender and racial composition,” while also improving performance.

So should applicants change their names to boost their chances? Absolutely not, researchers say. “That’s not the message that we’re trying put out there,” Banerjee stresses. The onus, she says, needs to be on employers to understand that such bias exists and to address it internally.

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