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How to Prevent Name-Related Bias

“What's in a name?” asks William Shakespeare’s character Juliet in the famous play “Romeo and Juliet.” “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yet when it comes to the workplace, research reveals that individuals can experience negative consequences because of their names.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and announced Feb. 7, 2012, Dr. Simon Laham from the University of Melbourne and Dr. Adam Alter from the New York University Stern School of Business reveal that those with simple, easy-to-pronounce names—from the perspective of research participants—are more likely than others to win friends and favor in the workplace.

The researchers, who conducted experiments using names from Anglo, Asian, and Western and Eastern European backgrounds, found that people with easy-to-pronounce names are evaluated more positively and are more likely to receive job promotions than those with difficult-to-pronounce names. “Research findings revealed that the effect is not due merely to the length of a name or how foreign-sounding or unusual it is, but rather how easy it is to pronounce,” said Laham in a statement. Subtle and often unrealized biases are to blame, he said.

Alter, who conducted a field study of U.S. lawyers’ names and found that attorneys with easy-to-pronounce names rose more quickly that others in their firms’ hierarchies, agreed: “People simply aren’t aware of the subtle impact that names can have on their judgments,” he explained.

Alter noted that the name bias effect is likely to exist in other industries and in many everyday contexts.

Though Laham and Alter’s research is new, the problem is not.

As SHRM Online has reported, a study called Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?, published June 20, 2004, found that applicants with “white-sounding names” were 50 percent more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those with names that were perceived to be black or African-American. At the time, the result was the same regardless of occupation, industry and employer size.

Some try to prevent such bias by changing their name, a practice that has been common throughout U.S. history, as evidenced by a lecture given in June 2011 on “The History of Name-Changing in the U.S.” by Kirsten Fermaglich, a professor of American history and American Jewish history at Michigan State University.

Some individuals take this issue to another level by choosing to change their physical appearance to minimize bias and increase opportunities, as SHRM Online has reported.

Advice for HR

Organizations can minimize the likelihood of name-related bias by:

  • Addressing the issue in nondiscrimination and harassment policies.
  • Training hiring managers on unintentional bias.
  • Removing the names and addresses of applicants from resumes before they are circulated.
  • Structuring interviews so that all candidates for the same position are asked the same questions.
  • Using multiple interviewers with diverse backgrounds.

Additional guidance on interviewing candidates for employment is available on SHRM Online.

“It’s important to appreciate the subtle biases that shape our choices and judgments about others,” Laham added. “Such an appreciation may help us de-bias our thinking, leading to fairer, more objective treatment of others.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Quick Links:

Racial Diversity

Workplace Diversity e-Newsletter

Diversity & Inclusion Group on SHRM Connect


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