Name Discrimination Among HR Managers: Does an Unusual Name Signify a Potential Problem Employee?

Name Discrimination Among HR Managers: Does an Unusual Name Signify a Potential Problem Employee?
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Would a Rose by Any Other Name Be So…Old Fashioned?

RoseMy curiosity was piqued by an item on CNN’s Global Public Square (GPS) about a ban on weird baby names by New Zealand’s Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Reprinted from the Global Post , and also featured in the country’s Herald Sun, this put an end to aspirations by apparently no less than three people who hoped to name their child Lucifer, now on the forbidden list. You’re also out of luck if you plan to name your child Messiah, King, Knight, Bishop, Mr., Duke, or any word that sounds like a title or salutation. Likewise verboten is the number 89 and the letters C, D, T and I.

However, things went pretty far before the down-under Registrar took action: Twin boys were named Benson and Hedges, and another boy was dubbed Number 16 Bus Shelter. Poor little Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii had to wait to grow up before she could legally change her name.

New Zealand is not the only place to ban names; Sweden has forbidden Superman, Elvis and Metallica, although Lego and Google (huh?) are okay. In the Dominican Republic, your child’s name must be gender specific, which rules out Querida Pina (Dear Pineapple) and Tonton Ruiz (Dummy Ruiz).

If you were considering Nicolas Cage’s son Kal-El for an opening at your company, would you expect him to be a super man? How about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Apple, or Penn Gillette’s Moxie Crimefighter? Well, Moxie isn’t too bad as long as the kid keeps the Crimefighter part under wraps.

Your Name Is What?

HR managers just don’t see standard names like Mary and John—and Linda—on resumes any more. We see a cacophony of cultural, symbolic, and made-up names, and sometimes you have to read lists of current names in order to meet these new sobriquets with equilibrium. Those younger than thirty have little experience with the fun and absolutely pointless pastime of phone book perusal. Today when we need a phone number that’s not on our Outlook, we click quickly onto the Internet and use the digital white pages. But in days of yore, a friend of mine (who would kill me if she knew I was spilling the beans) turned me on to the fun of letting your fingers take a frolic through the hefty, thin-papered phone books that used to be ubiquitous.


The names we would see! How could you not wonder what it would be like to be friends with Faye Funn? Wouldn’t any boy want a date with Nancy Nobbs? There was a Peter Pigg and, yes, there were Ducks and Buggs. You could find Lipps (Leroy or Lee) or Leggs. We found Pests, and there was a lady listed as I.B. Loser. I know it was a lady, because, I confess, my friend and I called the phone number; we hung up hastily when her machine answered. Later, she called my phone and said my number had come up on her caller I.D., and I just told her it was a wrong number.

We loved comparing the names we came across. My friend actually knew a man named Stobo Clowney. I knew someone abominably named Mordecai Applebaum. I don’t know how Mordecai has fared over the years, but I know that Stobo passed on, and I hope the little Clowney children don’t read this. Of course there’s nothing funny about the Clowney name, but whatever was Stobo’s mother thinking when she signed his birth certificate?


Billy WilliamsonThere is little discrimination directed against unusual surnames. The origin of many names is obvious—the last name Thompson meant you were the son of Tom. The last name Robertson meant you were the son of Robert. If you were named Bobby Robertson or Billy Williamson you grew up to be a baseball player.

Cooper, Miller, Baker and Brewer—all these names came from the family’s trade. Park, Wood, Hill, and Lake became people’s last names because they indicated where they lived—Tom of the Lake became Tom Lake.

Centuries ago, Jewish people used only first names—no surnames. In 1787, the Germans found a new way to tax its Jewish population, by passing a law requiring everyone to have a surname and then charging them for German-sounding names. Someone who could pay handsomely received a beautiful name such as Morgenstern—meaning morning star. If you could afford to pay but little, you ended up with something like Schmutz, which means dirt.

How Names Play into Job Performance

PhilWith the melting pot of surnames found in America, nobody really gives them much thought anymore. But given names—first names—still affect our preconceptions of others, even albeit subconsciously. Anthony, for example, might be a choirboy, while Tony will pinch your mama.’s Jenna Goudreau reported just a few months ago that most male CEOs have one-syllable, standard names: Bob, Jack, Bill, Bruce, Ron, and Don. They are names that roll quickly off the tongue accompanied by a quick handshake. Women who work their way to the top tend to use their full first names—Deborah, not Debbie; Cynthia, not Cindy, and so forth. Goudreau speculates that women have to work harder to be taken seriously, and so they use serious names.

Tralee Pearce of Canada’s The Globe and Mail blog, The Hot Button says that people whose surnames end in R through Z are quicker to jump at opportunities, possibly because they always had to wait until last during their school days when everything went alphabetically. This could portend assertive personality traits desirable in managers if other skill sets are in place as well.

What the Psychologists Say

Psychology Today’s Carlin Flora in 2004 addressed whether people are likely to be affected negatively by weird first names and believesBertha generally that they are not. For each of us, our name is the first word we know; it’s usually the first word we learn how to write, and we just become accustomed to it. He says that the person is more likely to be affected by the free-spirited parent who provided the name rather than by the name itself. Alternatively, the parent who wants a child to grow up to be sophisticated and elegant may choose a name such as Luc or Christian—although only time will tell whether Luc will rob the bank or chair the board.

Still, we formulate impressions of people based on their names. Flora asks, would you expect Bertha to be a ballerina? Mordecai Applebaum, of course, grew up to be a doctor. I don’t know what Stobo Clowney did.

You Never Can Tell

I did, however, know a man named Joe Schitz. He really hated his name, and eventually he went to court and changed it. He changed it to Vincent Schitz. He said he was so tired of people saying “Hey, Joe, whaddya know,” he just couldn’t take it anymore. He might have made it to CEO today had he kept Joe, since it goes better with a quick handshake.

When I managed placement at a temp service years ago, one of my best light industrial workers bore the curious name of Leroy Schwartzbaum. The name drove people crazy; what was he like, they always wanted to know. I admit I kind of enjoyed the effect the name had, and I just told people, “You’ll have to wait and see. You’ll like him.” And they always did.