Study: Some E-Mail Addresses a Red Flag to Employers

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 31, 2011
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MyKidCanBeatUpYourKid. EgotisticalDude. BornDrunk.

A job applicant’s kooky, cutesy, crazy, clever or unsettling e-mail address might leave a bad impression with a potential employer. And it can be a potential red flag about the person’s professionalism, conscientiousness and qualifications, according to researchers at Minnesota State University (MSU).

Their study looked at whether a relationship exists between a person’s e-mail address and how he or she scored in the SHL Previsor pre-employment test, which measures intelligence, professionalism, conscientiousness and work-related experience on behalf of other employers.

“Now that millions of people apply for jobs online, one of the first things an employer learns about a candidate is the candidate’s e-mail address,” write Daniel A. Sachau, Ph.D., MSU professor of industrial/organizational psychology, and graduate student Evan Blackhurst in their research paper, Should You Hire BlazinWeedClown@Qmail.com?

“This made us wonder if employers judge applicants based on the applicant’s e-mail address. We also wondered if these judgments might just be accurate,” they write. Would someone with an e-mail address such as demonseed@mail.com, they wondered, be less qualified than someone with a more professional-sounding address?

“Every HR manager I’ve talked to [about this] has said, ‘I’ve wondered about the same thing,’ ” Sachau told SHRM Online.

The study was prompted when some people at SHL Previsor, which administers standardized pre-employment tests for employers, “started to notice a trend where some of the people with the craziest-sounding names scored pretty low on some of the assessments,” Sachau said.

While people do not choose their birth name, they do choose their own e-mail address, Sachau pointed out. It’s especially puzzling, he added, when it’s not difficult or time-consuming to obtain a new e-mail address to use for business purposes.

“If they know how to complete online selection tests, they can go to Gmail and get a new e-mail name, and the fact that they didn’t do it is telling.”

Correlation?

Researchers rated e-mail addresses as workplace appropriate, inappropriate or questionable for 30,000 job seekers applying in 2010 for full- and part-time entry-level, nonmanagement positions with a large U.S. manufacturer.

“Appropriate” addresses consisted of a person’s real name or some form of it. Using one’s full name can be problematic, though, such as when it creates a double entendre or is unintentionally funny, Sachau said.

E-mail addresses such as TooDangHigh fell into the “inappropriate” category, while BillyRodeoKing and LightSabreChris were considered “questionable.” These were not quite appropriate for contacting an employer but not obviously inappropriate.

“This is where many of the cutesy, nerdy and interest references fell,” such as johnallcaps and the misspelled ImAGenuis, Sachau said in a follow-up e-mail.

“You wouldn’t necessarily think that a person who named him/herself lightsabre would cause trouble [on] the job, but you probably would not like Chris to use that name when he/she is representing your business.”

All domain names such as Gmail, Netscape and Yahoo were removed from addresses before researchers saw them. The study also stayed away from any racial references in addresses, Sachau said.

“You don’t know how much of a hip hop culture is uniquely black anyway,” he explained. “We just really were interested in these extreme cases—what were these people thinking when they apply for jobs” using these addresses.

Additionally, researchers grouped addresses into 16 themes, such as religious and satanic references and hobbies, and looked at how pre-employment test scores for 15,000 of the job applicants compared with how their addresses rated on the appropriateness scale.

Cutesy and inspirational addresses and those with a money theme, they found, scored slightly lower on the tests than typical applicants.

People whose addresses were rated “appropriate” scored higher in conscientiousness, professionalism and work-related experience than those with “questionable” addresses.

People whose addresses were rated “questionable” scored higher in conscientiousness, professionalism and work-related experience than those with “inappropriate” addresses.

People whose addresses were rated “inappropriate” because of themes or references to sex, aggression, demonic interests, drugs, toughness or criminal behavior scored lower on professionalism, conscientiousness and work-related experience than the other applicants.

Some results, though, were surprising.

“We assumed that job candidates with addresses like EvilMaggotDevil … or DaBoozer32 … would be a bit dimmer than the typical applicant, but this was not the case,” Sachau and Blackhurst write.

Not all of the address themes related to test scores:

  • People with blatantly self-promoting and self-deprecating addresses did not score significantly lower on the tests than those with less egocentric addresses.
  • People with science fiction/nerdy addresses, relationship addresses and hobby/interest addresses (Mets4life) did not score meaningfully above or below the typical job applicant.

However, researchers did not learn the hiring results for any of the applicants whose addresses and scores they studied; the employer kept that information confidential, Sachau said.

Too Much Information

“There [are] certain kinds of information an employer just shouldn’t have access to,” Sachau said. That includes the applicant’s marital and parental status, religion, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, politics, and age. Age can be conveyed when the address includes dates that appear to be the person’s birth or graduation year.

While Sachau said the e-mail address offers a glimpse into the applicant’s personality, he cautioned employers not to base a hiring decision solely on someone’s e-mail address.

Instead, look to applicants’ pre-employment test scores, he said. Those with inappropriate addresses scored 10 percent to 15 percent lower than applicants with more professional-sounding names, he noted.

That’s a “highly statistical difference, a meaningful difference. [The address is] a red flag that tells you I’m going to look at the test scores for this person,” Sachau said. “The standardized tests are validated. … We know to some extent that these e-mail names are correlated with the test scores, but you’ll want to use the test scores.”

He recommends that job applicants consider a professional-sounding e-mail address when contacting potential employers, saying he finds it hard to believe that any employer would react well to an e-mail address such as dirtyrider, bornbaked or thesniper.

Sometimes the e-mail address was a youthful whim that becomes the person’s functional e-mail address.

“My advice to anybody applying for a job: Stay away from using these kinds of names. People are built to make snap judgments. We can’t help it. We don’t want employers to just go with their gut, to make a snap judgment, but the reality is employers will do it. They’ll use any information they get. … It just can’t work in your favor. Just change it.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Article:

Study Suggests Bias Against ‘Black’ Names on Resumes, HR Magazine, February 2003

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