Dale Carnegie is quoted as saying a person’s name is to him or her [sic] the sweetest and most important sound in any language. This may very well be true. However, history has shown us that there is a lot of bias associated with names. This is especially true amongst job applicants who experience name bias in hiring. Name bias is a discriminatory act that involves a negative judgment or preference for a person’s name. In a study conducted by two professors from University of Chicago and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), they found that applicants with white sounding names were 50% more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those with typical black sounding names. I recently facilitated a training on unconscious bias to a group of leaders, and during the training, one of the leaders asked, “If the disparities are so prevalent, why wouldn’t people just name their children names that won’t provoke those biases?” This was a question that generated a lot of dialogue amongst the training participants.
Two main points rose to the surface during that dialogue. The first being that names are extremely important parts of identity for individuals. That identity is deeply personal with cultural familial and historical connections. Therefore, when we expect individuals to assimilate to the dominant culture, we are essentially asking them to leave a huge part of who they are undiscovered and devalued. The second point being that it’s not the parents naming their children that should be the ones to change, it’s in fact the ideologies held by the decision makers that should change. Those same decision makers who continue to perpetuate harm, racism and trauma through the verbal and non-verbal messages given.
Many people like their names whether chosen or given. And unfortunately, we live in a society where equitable opportunities are not offered simply because one person or a group of people can allow their biases to drive their decision making. Thinking that individual capabilities are directly tied to their names does not seem to make much sense when we really stop and think about it. They are essentially being told who you are doesn’t matter, the culture you hold doesn’t matter, and the single most important thing to you (your name) doesn’t fit into the box we’ve constructed so therefore you don’t matter.
There are some things that can be done to reduce name biases in hiring and in social interactions. First, it is important to be aware of your own biases and how they show up for you. Taking some time to really reflect on the decisions that you’ve made and why you’ve made those decisions is helpful. Also, taking some time to engage with people who are not like you and really get to know who they are helps to retrain the way we think about others. Third, find a way to remove names from future job applicants. This will allow the applicant to be viewed more for the experience they bring to the position than being hung up on their name. Lastly, being intentional about educating ourselves and those around us about different cultures. Understanding different cultures helps us to shift our ideas of what is “normal.”
Reducing name bias can lead to a reduction in the microaggressions, racism, and repeated harm inflicted upon individuals.