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Changing your name when looking for work: should you do it?

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay

With a nation that prides in diversity – made up of over 7.3 million migrants and 200 spoken languages – names would seem far too arbitrary to have any bearing on one’s chances for employment. 

After all, it’s your skills and experience that matter – right? 

Sadly, Australia (among other countries) has room to improve in this push for inclusivity. Despite our nation’s multiculturalism, there’s a lingering bias that’s hard to eliminate; leading to many migrant workers changing their names in favour of something more “anglicised”. 

For those entering the workforce with names often deemed “foreign”, “long”, or “complicated”, should you change your name for a job? 

SkillsTalk explore this rising issue – and effective solutions for combating discrimination

Name discrimination – how often does it happen?

Various global studies have been conducted on the prevalence of name bias or discrimination in recruitment.
Despite Australia at its most multicultural state, a famous 2009 study by the Australian National University found high rates of employer bias towards applicants with Anglo-Saxon names.

In fact, their research discovered that Chinese names had a one in five chance of being asked for interviews, compared to a one in three chance among Anglo-Saxon names. Furthermore, Chinese names required 68% more applications than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts to get the same number of calls back; with Middle Eastern names needing 64%, Indigenous names needing 35%, and Italian names needing 12% more. 

More recently, a University of Sydney study found that 13% of job applicants with Anglo-Saxon names were invited for an interview, compared to 4.8% of Chinese-named applicants.

Considering today’s progressive efforts in building inclusive, diverse workplaces for all backgrounds, ethnicities, and perspectives – the statistics are alarming. Former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, commends recent initiatives to improve gender equality in the workplace; recognising this progress as a “reflection of decades’ worth of organising advocacy and networks.” 

Sadly, we “don’t quite have that level of sophistication yet on racial or cultural diversity.” 

Some would still contest his former point, however. Research has also shown that name discrimination extends to gender bias on top of existing cultural stereotypes. In a collaborative study between Hays and Insync Surveys, 1,029 hiring managers asked to review identical job applications apart from one minor difference: one was named under “Susan”, while the other under “Simon”.

Despite the same exact skills and experience, recruiters were more likely to pick “Simon” for an interview. 

In an article by HRM, HR professional Helen Greene explores these discriminatory tendencies against race and gender. She argues that they’re more explicit, rather than “unconscious”; stating that employers generally prefer candidates who look – or at the very least, sound – like them. 

She also adds that “cultural fit” is often code for “racial preference”, and that preferences towards Anglo-Saxon applicants (among employers of the same race) are a result of people being uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. Additionally, she acknowledges the advantage of male applicants among male employers, stressing that “cultural fit” is also often code for “lik[ing] booze and NRL”

Subconscious or subliminal bias

multicultural employees working together

In contrast, other experts argue that such bias is oftentimes more implicit.

According to research by Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard University, humans are naturally wired to favour those similar to them. As such, even the most “open-minded” organisations are guilty of preferring applicants with similar educational or ethic backgrounds and experiences. 

In fact, even Google – a company with relatively diverse employees – admits to its need for a more inclusive hiring process. In an interview with PBS NewsHour, senior vice president Laszlo Bock states that “…we’re human beings and, as a result, we like people who’re like us.”

A 2012 study by Eryn Newman from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, also found that the easier one’s name is to pronounce, the more trustworthy people think they are. 

Newman links this to the ways in which we digest new information – the easier it is to process, the more positively we react to it. She uses the example of food additives, and how research shows that those with easier names are perceived as “safer” for consumption than those with difficult names.

Newman’s research has shown to align with previous studies on how those with “familiar” names tend to be more “liked”, are more preferred in mock elections, and are held to higher positions in a company. 

Other studies suggest that employers may also have the subconscious assumption that those with foreign names are unable to speak fluent English, or lack local work experience. 

CEO of Diversity Council Australia, Lisa Annese, links this subconscious bias to a simple lack of multi-cultural awareness, stating that, “There’s often an assumption that people can only speak a high-level of English if they come packaged in an Anglo-Saxon body… [but] this is not always the case.”

Thankfully, initiatives have taken place to educate recruiters on unconscious bias, with the push for more companies to follow suit. Such training has helped employers develop an awareness of the biases they may have, how this affects their decisions, and figure out ways of mending these mental patterns. 

So, should you change your name?

The question remains: should non-Anglo-Saxon job-seekers stick to more “anglicised” aliases

Experts at CV Saviour (an Australian resume-writing service) state that the right solution depends on what you deem appropriate. Your resume is your document and a representation of you,” they explain. “And you need to be fully comfortable with it.” 

However, they also suggest two common considerations for those with lengthy or complex names: (1) using a “shortened” name that you wish to be known by (i.e. instead of “James Nicholas Thomas Watson-Crowther-Brown”, the applicant may instead go by the name of “Jim Brown) or (2) spelling a complicated name phonetically (i.e. using Kweeva instead of its Gaelic counterpart, Caoimhe). 

Others recommend removing your name altogether, promoting a hiring process termed as “blind recruitment”. This includes the removal of other personal information such as addresses and schools.

In fact, the Victorian Government’s Recruit Smarter initiative includes trialling these anonymous job applications, along with training recruiters in unconscious bias and avoiding “biased language” in their job ads. The program has amassed over 40 Australian organisations, including Deloitte, Westpac, and Australia Post. 

Alternatively, you can opt for other ways of reaching out to employers, rather than solely relying on a resume.

In an ABC article, Mohamed (a 26-year old corporate lawyer) shares that his name was a barrier to getting call-backs when applying for casual jobs. It was only when he’d show up in person that employers would consider him as a suitable candidate.

Being proud of his name, he never opted to change it; instead, he turned to networking and cold-emailing on top of submitting his resume. 

His proactive efforts to connect with industry professionals – both online and in person – eventually landed him his job

Such methods would not only benefit those facing name discrimination – but all job-seekers, in general. 

The move towards a more diverse, inclusive workplace

people waiting outside for a job interview

Successfully removing these biases begins at a change in mindset. 

As mentioned, further training and education on unconscious bias can help recruiters develop an awareness of their decision-making process. They can start with acknowledging any biased or stereotyped views they may have, and work towards fixing these perceptions. 

But such large changes won’t happen overnight, and job-seekers will have to learn to cope in the meantime – whether it’s going by a nickname, remaining anonymous, or building their professional network in other assertive ways. 

With slow, yet sure progress taking place; we can be hopeful for a time when recruitment is exclusively influenced by skills and character – rather than names, genders, or socio-economic backgrounds.
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