T Nation

What's In a Name?

I was curious to see the range of opinions on that study that MIT and U of Chicago released last week that indicated that resumes with “black-sounding” names got fewer responses from employers than resumes with “white-sounding” names, all qualifications being equal.

The talking heads on TV and the chattering classes were quick to say this proved racism. I’m not so sure. While I’m not saying conclusively that there wasn’t racism, I am saying that there could have been other causes at work as well.

Some other possibilities: 1) Suspiciousness on the part of employers that the qualifications of those with “black sounding” names were in fact inflated because those individuals may have benefited from affirmative action, meaning that they didn’t really view the equal numbers as being equally well earned; 2) Fear that if the employee turned out to be a bad one that he or she would be virtually un-firable due to the threat of racial-discrimination lawsuits.

As I said, I’m not saying that racism is eliminated as a possible cause; all I’m saying is that I think it is one among many possible, non-mutually-exclusive causes, and I think the ones I listed are likely more powerful. What do you all think?

Here is a good story for you. My buddy is half-mexican (that is what he calls himself.) Changed his first name from Jon to Juan. Took advantage of the fact that most public institutions want minority coaches. Probably would have got a job anyway, but I thought it was interesting.

Your two options are quite valid. There are many intangibles that affect a hire in addition to the facts contained in the resume. A recruiter has to consider how a candidate will complement the existing workforce, in addition to their ability to perform a given function.

Prior to interview, no one can make a conclusive determination regarding a candidate’s soft skills. But some judgements must be made based on how the resume and cover letter were written as well as on the content of these items. A candidate’s name, work experience and references are part of this. If the work environment is predominantly black, young kids that have a reputation for dissing on Hispanics/Caucasians/whatever, you would hesitate to hire a candidate with a Hispanic/Caucasian/whatever name - how fair would it be to subject that person to almost certain hostility? It would benefit no one. If the work environment is predominantly senior citizen females, you would hesitate to hire a 24 year old male who listed “Tats & Crap” as a job reference. Morally and Politically Correct or not, it’s necessary to consider the “fit” of the candidate as well as the skills.

If the resumes in the study had identical qualifications, verbage, formatting, stationary, delivery method, etc. and were sent to predominantly Caucasion, degreed and stereotypically “professional” companies, I would not find it surprising at all that the HR dept. considered how a candidate’s supposed ethnic background would (or would not) fit into the existing work group. If the exact same resumes had been sent to companies where the majority of the workforce was black, what do you suppose would have been the result? The exact same thing but in reverse.

I’d be interested in more of the details of the study. You can set the parameters to “prove” anything you want to.

Interesting points to consider. As for your first point, if the employers were skeptical about the validity of the resume, why didn’t they schedule a phone interview or ask for additional references to gain additional information about the candidates qualifications. However, these employers did not even contact the candidates to see if their accomplishments were indeed earned.

As for the second point, not interviewing someone because you are afraid that they will claim racial discrimination (after you fire them) sounds like racism to me. In this case, you are using race as a determining factor in the hiring process.

I agree with the others that knowing more about the study would help. What I’m most interested in is determining what constituted a “black-sounding” name. “Black-sounding” could mean Johnson as a last name or Neosha as a first name, as examples. In the area where I live, there are a lot of “black-sounding” names that are unusual variations of first names. Names seen as unpronounceable or of foreign origin might lead an employer to move on to other applicants, even though the employer might not pick up that the name was “black-sounding”.

I’ve was in a position at my last job to sit in on a lot of resume reviews and I saw and heard things that made me think I had suddenly been transported to the dark ages.

I saw an extremely well qualifed woman denied a position even though she was the only applicant simply because the boss thought she was too pretty and would be too much of a distraction. No shit, those are the actual words that came out of his mouth. This is the same guy that asked an asian american person in an interview why he was even considering a move to Northeast PA (where the Co was located) since the asian population in the area was very small. I guess that he wanted to make sure that he didn’t hire someone who would decide to quit soon after cause he didn’t like the area, but I thought for sure we were going to get sued after that one.

It’s a shame but the studyu may have some validity.


There is the link to a pdf file of the study for those who wish to read it. It’s 40 pages, and I admit I haven’t had time to read it yet myself – I plan to do so this weekend.

For weezer: As to the second reason, I’m not so sure that is racism. It’s more of a recognition of the possible problems that employers face with all the liability created by discrimination lawsuits. In other words, it’s not an immutable characteristic of the person, but rather a consequence of the legal system, on which the employer would be basing his or her decision.

I wouldn’t hire a black, mexican or chinese person as an outside salesperson. It would ruin me. 99% of our customers are white male factory managers in the 30s and 40s. People like to buy from people like themselves. This has to do with the greater ease in establishing rappor with those more similar to yourself. Salespeople have a lot to get done in a limited time, and the more quickly a relationship is established, the greater the chance for success. This is a valid reason not to hire those from ethnic groups other than that of your primary customer base. If it weren’t valid, Calista Flockhart would be doing Afro-sheen commercials. If all my customers were chinese, I would hire chinese salespeople, and so on. Things being what they are, I hire only white males between 30 - 45. Could a person of different ethnicity “make it” in our job? Of coure, but it would be more difficult, and the company would eat the costs of reduced revenue. Ehtnicity, age, and sex CAN be a valid criteria in hiring selection. Also, in a post above, one person referred to a woman turned down because she was too pretty. Also valid. If the manager beleives she would be a distraction, he had better not hire her, esp if his workforce is primarily young males. I realise that the above will offend some – but the world is what it is. Your job as a manager or company owner is to make money – not “change the world.”

I am not claiming to know why these employers didn’t call these people. That said, aren’t racism, sexism, ageism (I am sure there are other -isms) based on the idea that you are treating people differently based on their race, gender, or age? Although we could argue about HOW they are treated differently (certainly there are shades of gray here), the fact is that people were not called because of their ethnic sounding names. So I guess we have a new -ism NAMEism.

I agree with you Huck that race, sex, etc. can come into play when hiring someone for some good reasons. I just hope you don’t tell this to the applicant when you turn them down.