What’s in a name? How diversity and inclusion are held back in the first stages of hiring

I once heard a story about my father where, as a young man, he was refused service because he was black.

The thing is, he wasn’t black. His heritage was as white as they come. But he had black curly hair and brown eyes. He worked outside and he tanned dark. To someone blinded by racism, he didn’t look white enough.

The story goes on that he didn’t want to embarrass the waitress by proving she was wrong. So, he went away quietly.

The advantage of a white name

In my early career, I did a lot of short-term project work, necessitating that I went on a lot of interviews. A few days into a new job, my supervisor jokingly told me he was pleasantly surprised when I showed up and was white. I’m sure I laughed it off. I didn’t want to embarrass him.

Then it happened a couple more times. I mentioned this to the recruiter that was helping me update my resume. I remember she paused for a long time before asking me if I had a nickname. I did and promptly switched. I didn’t really put much thought into it. I had legitimate justifications. My real name sounds like a silly nickname. My nickname was my gender-neutral initials, so I wasn’t lying. Admittedly, I didn’t want to shock someone by showing up white.

On one interview, I was asked what CJ stood for. When I explained, he chuckled and said it was smart of me to put a white name on my resume.

In that moment, I realized how much this actually mattered. So, I kept it. I was a single mother in a competitive job market, and I recognized this gave me an advantage. I wondered how many of my resumes were discarded, and ultimately opportunities lost, because of a perceived ethnicity attached to a name.

Apparently, many people have been pressured into changing their names, specifically minority Americans. More than a third of Black and Asian American students have used a white-sounding name on their resumes. More than “whitening” a name, candidates are removing race-related words from associations, memberships, and prestigious awards, and adding in “Americanized” hobbies such as snowboarding and kayaking. It’s telling that Americanized hobbies reflect white-western culture, and not the full melting-pot of American tastes and preferences.

Should applicants “whiten” their resumes?

Data has shown that job applicants with white names send out 10 resumes to get one callback, while those with black names need to send out 15. This 50% disparity translates to a white name yielding as many callbacks as an additional eight years of experience. This doesn’t end at names. Addresses and schools located in more-white neighborhoods also increased the rate of callbacks. These studies were conducted by simply assigning a random race, and therefore updating the name, address, etc., to a resume with identical qualifications.

Unfortunately, organizations that tout themselves as being equal-opportunity employers hire minorities at the same rate as those without. However, when applying for these jobs, minorities were much less likely to “whiten” their resumes, leading to larger gap between minority applications and diverse job offers.

Black Americans and Asian Americans have different motives when whitening their resumes. Black Americans fear they may be perceived as preoccupied with racial identity politics. Asian Americans are concerned that their English fluency will come into question, even though, at times, English is their first and only language. Overall, both minorities fear they’ll be seen as unable to fit existing “American” workplace norms.

It’s difficult to resist the urge to “get a foot in the door” by whitening your resume; however, if an organization resists your diverse resume, it’s likely not an ideal company to be working for overall.

Embedding diversity into the hiring process

Rather than jobseekers, and even recruiters, the onus should be on business leaders and hiring managers. Recruiters can do their best to introduce a diverse talent pool, but clients – those signing job offers – are the ones that can implement real change. Here are some steps businesses can take now:

  1. Employ blind recruitment, a technique where race, age, gender, etc. are removed from resumes before being introduced to the hiring team.
  2. Make tech work for you. Textio analyzes job postings to ensure the language of the post is inclusive and encourages a diverse talent pool to apply.
  3. Hiring managers can and should run analytics to ensure that the percentages of diverse resumes reach the next stage in parity with resumes from white applicants.
  4. Work towards an inclusive workplace. Placing a diverse talent pool at your company means nothing if your team doesn’t have the support of an inclusive work environment. Inclusivity is a long-term and constantly evolving state of business; however, businesses can start with providing mentors with similar life experiences as the team that is being brought on. Introduce kosher and halal meals in the break room, and prayer rooms in the office. Expand your parental policy to include fathers and parents that have other gender identities, and more.

Call me Cocoa

Many years ago, I came to the decision to stick with my real name. However, it took many more years to recognize exactly why I hid it in the first place and what that meant about my own beliefs.

I’m ashamed I took advantage of that system. That I recognized it was a disadvantage to not seem white enough and could choose to hide my name. Not everyone has this privilege and I certainly took advantage of mine. I thought I was better than that and I want to make up for it. No one should have to hide who they are to benefit from all opportunities.

Further, I’m angry at a system that would encourage someone to hide their name because it didn’t sound white enough. Knowing what I know now about the talent industry, I understand why my recruiter paused for so long. She was caught between her candidate, who needed a job, preferably one with a good culture fit, and a client who had very specific requirements from skills to demographics. Unfortunately, there are still clients today with similar requests for age, race, and gender. In the past, people like my dad and I remained silent, for fear of embarrassing or shocking others. That ends now. It’s our responsibility to step up, take a stand for what we believe in, and educate others, even if we feel uncomfortable along the way.

by Cocoa Pittman, research by Joyce Fang


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