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Is Your Name Hurting your Career?

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Interesting article in the Observer yesterday, showing that jobseekers with “ethnic” names were less likely to secure interviews when they had the same qualifications and experience as candidates with more European-sounding names. The British Chambers of Commerce are jumping up and down, saying that the results of the experiment don’t mean anything, but I do think it  could be useful in pointing out that even when employers don’t actively discriminate, there could still be other factors that influence their decision over who to offer a job, even if (and I’m being generous here) they are not conscious of it.

According to the report, the fictional candidates who applied for these very real jobs had similar work histories, all in the UK, so it’s not as though the companies concerned were worried about hiring an illegal immigrant. They also had the same qualifications and amount of experience, so it’s not as though one group was made out to be any more suitable than another. It seems as though the deciding factor was their names: Alison Taylor was fine, while Nazia Mahmood or Mariam Namagembe would have to make nearly twice as many applications before having the same success.

So is recruitment inherently racist? I know that I’ve surprised a couple of people when I’ve turned up at the office rocking my dreadlocks, but that says more about their expectations than what I sound like on the phone, or how I write my emails. Most are usually polite enough to ignore it, but I have had the awkward “But you don’t sound black!” conversation on more than one occasion. I also have an additional advantage in that a number of people mistake Migot as being French (apparently it’s a fairly popular surname over there), so they probably don’t realise until it would be rude and/or illegal to start making choices based on my skin colour. Nevertheless, it does worry me that employers could be making such arbitrary decision so early in the recruitment process.

There’s a school of thought – call it the Old School Tie theory – that people will recruit people who are mirrors of themselves: who went to the same schools or university, who hang out in the same social circles, who belong to the same club, who are like them. Even if they don’t deliberately set out to exclude anyone who falls outside these criteria, the thinking goes, they are still more likely to choose somebody like them, somebody who understands how they work, who won’t rock the boat. Like attracts like, in such cases, and at the application stage, they don’t have to justify their choices. So it is that you can find companies dominated by people who all went to a particular university, or a boardroom full of rugby fans, or even just non-redheads, despite the fact that there could be a host of more suitable candidates who have been overlooked.

When there was a big outcry a few years ago about British companies outsourcing their call centre operations to India, I remember some of the fury was directed at the fact that the call centre staff often disguised their origins by adopting pseudonyms such as “John” or “Mary” when calling the UK, despite their heavy accented English. Leaving aside the different ways in which businesses will try to localise their services, it does seem odd that none of the people complaining about this practice seemed able to conceive of an Indian John or Mary, despite the country being host to a large number of Christians who could easily adopt the name.

Despite the protestations of the Chambers of Commerce, it does seem that racism, or at least cultural ignorance, is alive and well in British recruiting. There is no other explanation for why those with more exotic names have to try so much harder to get the same job-hunting outcomes as those with stereotypically Anglo-Saxon names. But what does this mean for jobhunters? Does this mean that they would be better off faking their name just to get an interview? I can’t see a potential employer reacting well to that, if only for the fact it would force them to confront their own racism. Are parents who “Anglicise” their children’s names giving their offspring a headstart in the job market? Possibly. But the fact that they feel the need to do so is an indictment of the job market in itself.

Given the fact that Britain, at least in recruiting, is racist, what does this mean for other areas? Would “Edward Mulligan” stand a better or worse chance of securing a job in Kenya, or China, or Brazil? I’ll admit that I am a spoiled, privileged, remarkably cocooned child of my circumstances. I don’t notice names, or if I do, only when I fret over pronunciation. It has never occurred to me that certain names will generate a better response than others, as I have always been more concerned with whether people can do the job. This doesn’t mean that I am unaware of racism in the workplace, more that I have not had to confront it first-hand.  I like to imagine that I would stand the same chance of getting a job no matter where I worked, but the study shows that this isn’t the case. Being demonstrably “different” is an apparent disadvantage.

I am loath to tell parents that they need to Westernise the names of their children, just as I am loath to tell people to change their accent to secure a job. What would be better would be to find out which employers are discriminating on the basis of names and to point out the amount of talent that they are wilfully allowing to slip through their fingers. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as though this is going to happen any time soon. Instead, while members of the Chambers of Commerce are in denial, more talented and qualified candidates are going to find themselves denied jobs simply because their names are “different.” This is both unjust and unnecessary. The fightback needs to begin somewhere, but I’m not sure if it should start with people faking their names.

[Image by Kian Esquire]

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