Discrimination: Will an Employer Toss Your Resume Because of Your Name?

McLovin avoids a form of discrimination by using an alternative ID in "Superbad"
McLovin avoids a form of discrimination by using an alternative ID in Superbad. | Columbia Pictures

It’s hard enough to find a good job. But what if you had to wrestle with recruiters’ biases without ever seeing them? Millions of job seekers deal with this problem with every resume they send out. Name discrimination — or the act of weeding out job applicants based on their name — is a very real problem. The severity of the issue, however, is lost on many of us.
Consider this: Research shows job applicants with Asian names (Chinese, specifically) have to apply to 68% more jobs than a candidate with a Caucasian-sounding name before landing an interview in the Australian job market. And the problem isn’t limited to Chinese applicants. Data from Australian National University said “an Indigenous person must submit 35% more applications.” But we’re not done: “An Italian person must submit 12% more applications and a Middle Eastern person 64% more applications.”
Those are Australian numbers, but they do translate to other job markets — specifically, the U.S., Canada, and some European countries. The point is your name can hamper your job search. In some cases, it can bring it to a screeching halt. This is due to biases in the hiring process, which might not be conscious. Obviously, not everyone who is in charge of hiring candidates is going to be a racist or hold biases. But some do, and the data show it.
People of certain backgrounds will have a tougher time on the job market than others. Let’s go through a short list of backgrounds and then discuss possible solutions.

Black-sounding names

A Target employee greets a job seeker at the start of an interview during a job fair
A Target employee greets a job seeker at the start of an interview during a job fair. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

People with black-sounding names are often targets of discrimination. Studies, such as one from the University of California, have even shown a black-sounding name conjures up assumptions about not only physical appearance but also socioeconomic status. An experiment in Boston and Chicago in the early 2000s showed applicants with white-sounding names were 50% more likely to be called in for an interview over an applicant with a black-sounding name.
Next: Though black Americans have been struggling with this type of discrimination for some time, they’re far from the only group affected.

Latino names

Two women engage in an interview.
Two women engage in an interview. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Like many black Americans, Latinos are often subjected to discrimination due to their names, as well. A 2006 study titled “Discrimination Against Latino Job Applicants” found Latinos were at a heavy disadvantage when on the job hunt. “Anglos and Latinos posing as job seekers applied for 468 job vacancies advertised in the Washington, D.C., area. Latino applicants received less favorable treatment than equally qualified Anglos more than 20% of the time,” the study said.
Next: Sadly, Asians aren’t immune from name discrimination either.

Asian names

Women prepare for job interviews
Women prepare for job interviews. | Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

According to a study by researchers (using fictitious candidates) at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, people of Asian descent are at a big disadvantage due to name discrimination. We’ll dig into some of the subsets of this study on the following pages, but the headline number is applicants in Canada who had Asian names were 28% less likely to get called in for an interview than those with “whiter” names, even when the qualifications were the same.
Next: This study includes not only names from East Asia but from India, as well.

Indian names

A man stands in line with other applicants as they wait for interview appointments
A man stands in line with other applicants as they wait for interview appointments. | Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

With immigration from India and surrounding countries (we’ll tackle that next) on the rise to both the U.S. and Canada, name discrimination is set to become a serious roadblock for many candidates. Indian names were one of the three national subsets in the study from the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. All things being equal, an Indian name could hurt your chances of landing an interview by up to 28%.
Next: One of India’s neighbors, Pakistan, was also mentioned in the study.

Pakistani names

A man holds his resume
A man holds his resume. | John Moore/Getty Images

This seems fairly specific, but the study does mention Pakistani-sounding names, in particular, can hurt your chances of landing a job. Some additional details about that: The fictitious candidates had the same qualifications, Canadian experience, and Canadian educations. (The study was Canadian.) This led the researchers to conclude discriminating against the outstanding variable, an Asian name, amounted to racial discrimination — as many might suspect.
“The Asian name very clearly references race. If racial discrimination is defined as a different outcome for different racial groups which can be attributed to race and not to actual qualifications, then the finding truly assesses racial discrimination,” the study said.
Next: We jump to yet another world region.

North African names

Resumes sit in a basket at the Primerica booth during the Job Hunter's Boot Camp
Resumes sit in a basket at the Primerica booth during the Job Hunter’s Boot Camp. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Another somewhat specific subcategory of names employers evidently don’t like to see are those from North Africa. This is a sprawling region and can include numerous nationalities. A French study showed more than a quarter of employers in a small sample discriminated against applicants based on their names. It was a small experiment, and these numbers would likely change in a bigger country, such as the U.S. Even so, evidence exists North African names are targeted at least some of the time.
Next: So is “whitening” your name a solution to the issue of discrimination?

‘Whitening’ your name

People wait to speak to potential employers at a job fair
People wait to speak to potential employers at a job fair. | John Moore/Getty Images

If you’re afraid your name is setting your job search back, what’s an appropriate course of action? For some, the idea of “whitening” your name might be at the top of the list. But is that advisable? It depends on whom you ask.
It does seem to get results, but not everyone is going to be comfortable with downplaying who they are. Many people are proud of their heritage — racial or otherwise. As a result, “whitening” your name in order to get a job interview can be an understandably uncomfortable proposition.
But back to those results. Studies show applicants who do “whiten” their names get more calls for interviews. A two-year study by researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga experimented by sending out 1,600 fake resumes to employers in 16 cities with a control group of real names and a number of “whitened” names. The results showed 25% of the “black” applicants with “whitened” names were called in for interviews. It was only 10% for the resumes with unaltered names. There were similar results for resumes with Asian names.
Evidently, “whitening” your resume can make a difference. But if discrimination is a problem on the employer’s end, why don’t they put in some policies to fix it? As it turns out, that can backfire.
Next: Fixing the bias is difficult.

Bad news: Training doesn’t help

A "now hiring" sign
Even acknowledging the problem hasn’t resulted in much change. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If an employer’s human resources or hiring team is engaging in conscious or unconscious bias, shouldn’t the burden be on them to fix it? That’s a logical conclusion, and many employers have tried. We’re all aware many companies are making efforts to become more diverse. But those policies don’t always pan out, and in some cases, attempts to course correct blow up in employers’ faces.
In fact, attempts at training those in charge of recruiting and hiring to whittle away biases has proven to be ineffective. And that goes further than just the racial biases that are associated with name discrimination. It affects female candidates, too. These biases are rife even among the world’s big tech companies, many which outwardly celebrate diversity.
Just look at what diversity programs have garnered over the past few years. Researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, writing for Harvard Business Review, said an emphasis on diversity programs over the past few decades has had mixed results.
“Although the proportion of managers at U.S. commercial banks who were Hispanic rose from 4.7% in 2003 to 5.7% in 2014, white women’s representation dropped from 39% to 35%, and black men’s from 2.5% to 2.3%,” they said. “Among all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, the proportion of black men in management increased just slightly — from 3% to 3.3% — from 1985 to 2014. White women saw bigger gains from 1985 to 2000 — rising from 22% to 29% of managers — but their numbers haven’t budged since then.”
Next: The solution, it seems, must take another, anonymous form.

Potential solution: Anonymous resumes

resumes in folder saying rejected resumes
Rejected resumes | iStock.com/ziss

What if we just anonymize everyone’s resume? That seems to be a potential solution, though it seems counterintuitive. But knowing less about a candidate might be the best way to curb hiring biases.
“Blind hiring,” as it’s commonly called, is a tactic being implemented by some companies. Some countries, including France (under certain circumstances), have even mandated name-blind applications. But whether it’s actually successful has yet to be determined. One study from Sweden, for example, showed there wasn’t a significant change in the hiring of minority candidates. In fact, it’s been a mixed bag of results.
So though we’re left with a potential solution, it’s still a far cry from a silver bullet. There are even some who are willing to give up on name-blind experimentation and try to progress with other methods.
What other tactics could be implemented? Examples include letting computers sort out recruits, rather than relying on flawed human judgment. Collaborative hiring processes are also a possibility. But for now, the problem persists without any hope for a quick fix.