“What’s in a Name?” Part 1: Why Names Matter for Inclusion in the Workplace

By: Angie (Min Ah) Park

In 2018, a study calledDo Larger Employers Treat Racial Minorities More Fairly? researchers at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto made headlines by finding that Canadian job applicants with Asian names are 20 to 40 percent less likely to receive a callback from large organizations with more than 500 employees, simply due to their names.

This study is only a part of a much larger picture. Despite the rising calls for greater diversity and equity in organizations, several studies based on field experiments of resume audits consistently show that name-based discrimination is deep rooted and persisting in North American job markets. 

For example, as early as 2004, researchers found that resumes with first names such as “Lakisha” or “Jamal” suggesting that the candidate is Black generated fewer interview requests than resumes with names that sound white (ex. “Emily” or “Greg”).

In 2016, a problematic practice known as resume whitening was further investigated, where racial minorities would “attempt to avoid anticipated discrimination in labour markets by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications.”

This phenomenon of “resume whitening” reveals the undue pressure felt by racial-minority applicants to hide or deny important parts of their identity—from their names to work and volunteer experiences—in order to “fit” into the unfair mould of employers’ biases during hiring.

In light of these recent findings, this week’s article takes a deep dive into why names matter for inclusion in the workplace. Next week, we will build on this week’s learnings by exploring impactful next steps to make names count for organizational inclusion.



Why Names Matter

  • Our names are a key part of our identity

From an early age, names become a foundational part of ourselves and a habitual gateway for our connection with others. In many cultures, names additionally reflect unique stories, traditions, and the hopes and thoughtful intentions of our parents, families, and/or communities.

This close relationship between our names and identities partially explains the overwhelming negative emotions felt by individuals whose names have been repeatedly butchered by both their colleagues and strangers, whether the harm was caused consciously or unconsciously.

A 2021 BBC article titled “Why getting a name right matters” aptly captures the experiences of several public figures who have spoken out against name-based discrimination, such as the Canadian radio host Nana aba Duncan who grew tired of people not only mispronouncing but making fun of and complaining about her “difficult” and “foreign” name.

Many in the article echo how habitually pronouncing an unfamiliar name incorrectly can send a message to the person that they are not valued, less important to the environment, and that taking the time and effort to learn their name is therefore unnecessary. 

  • In this way, failing to respect a person’s name is a form of microaggression.

Microaggressions are small, intentional or unintentional words or actions that cause an individual (or a group of individuals) to feel excluded or diminished as a result. As introduced in last week’s post, microaggressions are dangerous as they have compounding harmful effects on a person over time.

What this means is that when we carelessly mispronounce someone’s name, although we may consider this as a small, unintentional mistake, the impact can pile up over time to reduce a colleague’s self-confidence, their feelings of respect and belonging on a team, as well as their level of comfort embracing traits of their diversity in an organization.

As an example, a 2012 study titled Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microaggressions and the K-12 Classrooms” discovered that mispronouncing the names of students of colour in the classroom negatively affected their social and emotional wellbeing, harmed their ability to learn, and created feelings of shame and dissociation from their culture.

  • On a systemic level, unchecked name-based discrimination can also be detrimental to organizations’ DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) iniatives and outcomes.

The recent research findings about name-based discrimination are just one of many pieces of evidence that uncover the effects of unconscious biases in organizational hiring practices (explore more about unconscious biases here). 

If left unchallenged, these biases reduce the likelihood of racial minority applicants being hired fairly regardless of their qualifications and suitability for positions, making it impossible as a result for organizations to increase their overall diversity. 

Even if some participants “make it” through the initial, tough barriers of recruitment, persistent name-based discrimination can affect employee retention, their well-being and ability to thrive in an organization, as well as future opportunities for promotions and career advancement.

To challenge and mitigate such effects of name-based discrimination, organizational leaders must take intentional and strategic steps to shape a workplace environment that is safe, inspiring, and fair for all employees, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or the uniqueness of their name. 

Read Part 2 of this blog, How to Make Names Count for Inclusion in the Workplace


That’s it for this week’s reflection on names and inclusion! If you found this post insightful, check out other entries by browsing THG’s blog. Take a tour of THG’s DEI training solutions for more comprehensive learning experiences here.