“… in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it.”

“So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”’ ~ Uzoamaka Aduba, actress. http://www.improper.com/features/the-eyes-have-it/


Fun fact about me: When I was growing up, I hated my name.

It’s a bit unusual, my name. It’s familiar enough (in terms of spelling and pronunciation), yet it confuses people to no end. I can’t tell you how many times it’s been misspelled (my birth certificate was), mispronounced (a lot) or led to awkward apologies (many people assume my name is Victoria).

Eventually I gave up; I would let people call me whatever they were most comfortable with. So I got a lot of “Victors” and “V’s” for a number of years. I got tired of having to correct people all the time. I got tired of the assumptions–that my name was Victor, or that I was a girl.Then in high school I encountered something that changed my mind. I was in class one day while the teacher was doing roll call. It was early in the year, so he didn’t know everyone yet. After he announced my name (and I acknowledged it) he looked up at me and said,”You’re Victorio?”

“Yes,” I replied in my best casual teen voice.

“Nice name.” he replied, and continued with roll call.

Maybe it was because the compliment seemed genuine. Maybe I was just tired of being called Victor. Maybe I was ready to start thinking and acting like a grown up. Whatever the reason, I decided at that point that my name was Victorio and I would own that fact.


Names are complicated things. They serve as signals to others, transmitting information–gender related, cultural, social–that others receive and make assumptions on. It’s also one of the ways in which bias may be displayed. For example, studies have been conducted which show that people with non-ethnic sounding names receive up to 50% more call backs for job interviews than those with ethnic sounding ones. You can read one of the most well known research papers on the topic here: http://www.nber.org/papers/w9873

And in this digital age, one’s name can lead to some interesting search results. Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard Professor and current Chief Technologist at the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), conducted research in 2013 regarding Google Adsense, a provider of online advertisements. It was discovered that ethnic sounding names entered into Google’s search field generated ads for companies which conducted background checks 25% more frequently than searches utilizing non-ethnic ones. In other words, ethnic names generated online ads which suggested that the viewer may have a criminal background. You can read her research here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2208240

What Latanya Sweeney uncovered is troubling. When you consider that for many recruiters and hiring managers, securing the right candidate for a role means sorting through large volumes of resumes and applications. The first order of business is eliminating those that seem to not to be a good fit for the role or organization. In the context of having an unusual name, potentially qualified candidates may be eliminated from consideration unjustly.

Also, it’s common practice among recruiters and hiring managers to utilize online tools to research job candidates. If typing in a person’s name produces ads which allude to criminal behavior, it can further reinforce a bias against the candidate.

But why should someone’s name be a barrier to success? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Maybe it goes to the fact that different in-groups define themselves by those features which are familiar. Whether it’s the city that you and your cohorts grew up in, or the schools you were a part of, people are most comfortable among those they share common traits with. An unusual name, consciously or not, may be a signal that a person is not from the in-group. Rather than incorporating that which is unknown or unfamiliar into an existing worldview, it’s rejected (along with the name’s owner).

Here are some things to think about:

  • Is your common response when first meeting someone to shorten or modify their name?
  • When attempting to learn someone’s name do you ask how it’s pronounced or spelled?
  • Do you have a tendency to shorten or modify a person’s name? Do you ask permission first?
  • For job candidates or potential clients, are you focusing on qualifications? What methodology are you using to ensure decisions are being made based on them?

How we approach people and their names indicates respect, or a lack thereof. Business leaders should be cognizant of personal and organizational bad habits which demonstrate disrespect, bias, or outright discrimination. Be cognizant of potential bias against those with unusual names. Be respectful of how they may want it pronounced or spelled. Focus on qualifications. And remember–if you can pronounce Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, you can do the same for your clients and co-workers.

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HRExaminer Radio: Episode #78: Mike Maughan

Mike Maughan specializes in helping organizations understand employee development and engagement strategies at Qualtrics. John spoke with Mike this past...