We all want to be an original, but some research indicates that when it comes to the name you put on your resume, it might pay to be just another Tom, Dick, or Harry.
Today's job seekers have learned – sometimes the hard way – that there is a lot of power in a name and that our names can send messages to recruiters that have unintended consequences.
Case in point: Kirsten W. is a recruiter in the insurance industry. A few years back, as a favor, she was advising a friend who wasn't getting any traction in her job search. Her friend wanted to know how she might reorganize her resume to be more appealing to recruiters.
Upon review, Kirsten found that the applicant was well qualified for the administrative roles to which she was applying. Despite this, she hadn't been invited to a single job interview after sending out more than 25 resumes. It was head scratching.
Since Kirsten couldn't find a problem with the content of the applicant's resume, she made a slightly unconventional suggestion: to change her name on her resume from "Jamila" to "Jamie" to make her sound less ethnic. The applicant, who was African American, took Kirsten's advice and immediately started getting invitations from recruiters to interview.
Was it a fluke? Research suggests not. In 2016, researchers found evidence of what some jobseekers have long suspected ¬– applicants with names that sounded "whiter" received more callbacks for jobs than applicants with more ethnic-sounding names.
Research Reveals Resume Whitening Pays
During the study, which was conducted over the course of two years and published in the Administrative Science Quarterly Journal, researchers tested attitudes about diversity from two sides of the hiring process.
In the first test, which examined the prevalence of resume whitening among job seekers, researchers interviewed 59 African American and Asian students between the ages of 18 and 25 who were actively applying for jobs and internships. The interviews found that 36 percent of participants admitted to whitening their resumes, while two-thirds of the participants reported knowing someone else who had similarly altered their resumes in the past.
Examples of how respondents were "whitening" their resumes included changing the name on their application materials to make them sound "more white," omitting references to membership in organizations that could reveal their race or ethnicity, and "emphasizing experiences that signaled whiteness or assimilation into 'white culture'," according to the study.
One respondent to the survey explained his reasoning for adding what he considered "American" experiences to his resume this way:
"…You want to kind of Americanize your interests. You don't want to be too multicultural with your interests… [so] a lot of people will put, you know, hiking or snowboarding or things that are very common to America or Western culture…'
With the results of job seeker behavior in, the researchers then set out to test whether employers reacted differently to these "whitened" resumes. To accomplish this, the researchers randomly submitted 1,600 resumes to employers in response to job ads in 16 metropolitan areas in the U.S.
The content of the resumes was taken from real-life candidates. However, some resumes were "whitened," while others contained names and other information that could identify the applicant as either Asian or African American.
The results? When African American candidates' names were "whitened" on a resume, 25.5 percent of those resumes received callbacks. Conversely, only 10 percent of the same resumes received a callback when the names and experience of the candidates were unaltered.
For Asian applicants, 21 percent received a callback when they changed their resume and only 11.5 percent of resumes that were not "whitened" received a positive response.
Overall, the study found that minority job applicants who resort to "resume whitening" are more than twice as likely to receive a response to their resume than those who don't alter racially-identifying information.
So Should You "Whiten" Your Resume?
Stephanie Lampkin, who developed the blind hiring tool Blendoor, believes that changing one's name on a resume – particularly for first-generation Asian Americans, many of whom have "Christian names" that differ from the names they use at home – is a practical way for job seekers to stay competitive.
"It's a matter of conforming or assimilating to a system to get ahead," she said.
As a point of comparison, she pointed out that many job seekers include factually inaccurate information on their resumes all the time, with some even fabricating education and abilities.
"People alter their resumes in many different ways to get an edge or an upper hand," she said. "They add skills they don't have, they exaggerate the extent of experiences, and some even list degrees they haven't fully earned.."
This practice she considers underhanded. A name change or the omission of something that could spark unconscious bias, on the other hand, is simply a way of working with the system to get ahead.
Torin Ellis, a diversity strategist who partners with companies to achieve their diversity objectives, disagrees. He has reservations about the practice of resume whitening.
"I am not a fan of a person having to diminish who they are by changing their name or hiding the fact that they attended a historically black college or university," he said.
While Ellis said that he appreciates that resume whitening is an effort to get a foot in the door and gain access to opportunity, he believes it helps perpetuate existing problems in the workplace.
The fact that jobseekers even feel compelled to change these identifying details on their application documents, "says something larger about the workplace, those that are involved in the hiring of talent, and what they've normalized—and that disappoints me."
This should not be the norm in 2018, he said, adding that by now he feels the playing field should be far more level.
"But, the truth is, it's not [level] if this 'whitening' is happening at such recognizable levels," he said.
Unconscious Bias in the Hiring Process
Both Ellis and Lampkin agree that while some job seekers do feel a pressure to manipulate their resumes, that alone doesn't mean that overall efforts to create a more diverse workforce have stalled. The changes may just be happening more slowly than some diversity advocates might like.
Ellis believes that looking at new hire statistics, for example, would be more representative of whether a company is making progress towards a more diverse workforce than looking to overall diversity numbers. Those, he said, could take many years to change.
"If you look at the organizations that people tend to pick on when talking about diversity, like Facebook and Google, for example, these organizations aren't going to see a major change in their diversity numbers [year-over-year] without firing half of their workforce. Then, more than 60 percent of the new hires would then have to be diverse or underrepresented talent. That isn't going to happen," he said.
Lampkin also doesn't believe that the results of the study reflect the current state of diversity in hiring. Instead, she thinks they confirm the existence of unconscious bias in the hiring process.
"The IAT (Implicit Association Test) has revealed that even people who have dedicated their lives to combating racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia [can] fall victim to unconscious bias," she said. "We are fed millions of bits of information per second, but our brain is only able to process tens of thousands. Therefore, we are all wired to make shortcuts in a way that may be counterproductive to our best interests or intent."
Lampkin's blind hiring tool is one solution that can help organizations level the playing field in the hiring process. The Blendoor app hides the names, photos, and ages of candidates to lessen bias in the hiring process, specifically during the sourcing process.
Companies who use the app receive the profile and data of applicants, like skills, degrees, and previous work experience, along with a 'fit score,' which is generated by comparing their qualifications to the job description.
Ellis believes that first and foremost changes must be made to the makeup of hiring teams.
Combating bias in hiring starts, he said, with assembling a non-homogenous recruiting team that can see the value in the experiences of a variety of candidates. Creating recruiting teams that are more representative of society as a whole will vastly improve the likelihood that diversity in hiring becomes second nature.
"When companies can say that they have a diverse hiring team in place and have the data to prove it, whether or not [their numbers show] a more diverse workforce, I am willing to smile and pat them on the back for taking a step forward."