Jones vs. Anastasijevic

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By Laurie Ruettimann


Laurie Ruettimann headshotI live with a dark secret: I took my husband’s difficult-to-pronounce surname—pronounced ROO-ta-man—because of my organization’s payroll system. When I got married a decade ago, I wanted to embrace my 1990s version of Lilith Fair feminism and hyphenate our names; however, at the time, the payroll-services firm that my company used allowed for only fifteen characters. With a hyphen and my own ethnic last name, I was coming out at sixteen characters—never mind too many vowels.

It turns out that I was potentially screwing myself regardless of which option I would have chosen, according to a new research paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The article finds that people whose names are easier than mine to say occupy higher-status positions in law firms. This phenomenon is called the “name-pronunciation effect.” The study also finds that we more positively evaluate easy-to-pronounce names—and the people who bear them.

That’s right. If your last name is Jones or Williamson, you are golden. If it is Matyczyn or Gumescheimer, your supervisors and colleagues may be biased against you, which can impact your earnings and your opportunities in both the short and long terms. (Unfortunately, the study makes no reference whether having a relatively odd-sounding name affects one’s own partiality.)

What’s interesting is that the study’s results are consistent and have nothing to do with length, unusualness, typicality, foreignness, and orthographic regularity. That’s right: You can be black, white, or beige, from Montana, Mongolia, or Mars, and it won’t matter. It’s all about how your name rolls off the tongue. So if your last name is Johnson, Novak, or Tanaka, you probably breeze through life with champagne wishes and caviar dreams. If your last name is Anastasijevic, Papadopoulos, or Akunyili, you probably trudge through life saying things like, “Yeah, I know it’s a big last name. Just call me Judy.”

Poor Judy Akunyili-Anastasijevic. She’ll be filing TPS reports for the rest of her life while her counterpart, Jennifer Novak, will be running for Congress by the age of 35.

That doesn’t mean that David Gonzalez will fare well in his career simply because your eyes didn’t pause long while reading his name. Race-based name discrimination and bias also exist, particularly for Muslim, Arab, and Persian applicants in a post-9/11 environment. Many of us who work in the world of human resources and lead diversity initiatives have seen plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the claim that non-white job-seekers suffer widespread prejudice throughout all sectors of the economy.

There’s also proof.

Just as various groups hire secret shoppers to test the skills and friendliness of workers at fast-food restaurants, others use undercover job hunters to create false identities and send résumés to employers. In the United Kingdom, the National Centre for Social Research conducted an experiment in which it sent fake résumés responding to 987 jobs, using three false names—Nazia Mahmood, Mariam Namagembe, and Alison Taylor. The results were stunning. According to an article in The Guardian, “They found that an applicant who appeared to be white would send nine applications before receiving a positive response of either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. Minority candidates with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response.”

Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have written extensively on baby names, and they have a different theory about implied bias. In America, it is common for minority communities to crown their children with highly differentiated and distinctive names. White Americans may name their daughters Vanessa while some girls in the African-American community bear a variation such as Vonessia.

According to Levitt and Dubner, the data shows that a person with a distinctively black name fares worse in life than someone with a white-sounding name such as Molly or Jake. But, Levitt argues, “It isn’t the fault of his or her name. If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don’t tend to live in the same neighborhoods or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn. And that’s why, on average, a boy named Jake will tend to earn more money and get more education than a boy named DeShawn. DeShawn’s name is an indicator—but not a cause—of his life path.”

As a leader, I wonder what assumptions you make about the knowledge, skills, and potential of an employee named Terry Greenberg. Is Terry a woman or a man? Is she an accountant or is he a consultant? How about Vincent Castelletti? When Vince’s résumé comes across your desk, do you first assume he’s applying for a job in sales or IT? Is Lakeesha Jones your next chief medical officer or chief diversity officer?

And, if we think back to the bigger issue of likability and the name-pronunciation effect, I wonder whether you’d enjoy working with Stephanie Piotroski-Tomaszewski as much as you’d enjoy working with Mark Mitchell.

Carmen Hudson, a leading recruiter who spent her career at companies such as Yahoo! and Amazon, says that technology can help to remove initial bias in the recruiting process. Many companies have invested in comprehensive human-capital management modules as part of a broader resource-planning system. Hudson says, “I have long thought that applicant-tracking systems should obscure names, demographic information, and even information such as ZIP codes and area codes until skills have been reviewed.”

The job market is tremendously complex and unscientific. It’s where data meets emotion. Knowing what we know about the subtle and implicit biases related to names, some job-seekers might follow the path of early immigrants to Ellis Island and choose to change their names to improve their future employment opportunities. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt predicts that every young person will one day consider—and possibly feel entitled to—changing her name due to youthful shenanigans and perceived biases.

Nevertheless, Hudson argues that name-related bias at work and in life is unacceptable and that society should evolve. She advises, “Mothers, name your child whatever you want. Employers, hiring managers, voters, corporate board members, and merchants—you are on notice. Do not make decisions and take actions based on a first or last name. You will be held accountable.”

Simon Laham, a co-author of the name-pronunciation-effect study, agrees. In an interview with Medical News Today, he was optimistic that the results of his study would be helpful in the workforce. “Such an appreciation may help us de-bias our thinking, leading to fairer, more objective treatment of others.”


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