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Workplace Discrimination Based On Names

By Derek Mong

Shakespeare once wrote: “What’s in a name?”  Apparently, if you’re a minority in America’s workplaces, a name can mean the difference between the opportunity for success and rejection.


A study from The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in the early 2000’s studied the effects of names as a proxy for race or ethnicity on the propensity for individuals to be called in for job interviews. The study— titled “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”—involved individuals responding to 1,300 ads for sales, customer service, and administrative type positions in the 2001-2002 time frame. The individuals who responded had not just similar, but identical, resumes—except for the name attributed to the resume. Their findings? Resumes with white names resulted in roughly 50% more callbacks than those with African-American names.

What’s even more intriguing is that higher quality resumes labeled with white names elicited roughly 30% more callbacks than the average resume labeled with a white name, yet high quality resumes labeled with African American names saw no similar increase in callback rate—suggesting that something deeper, and perhaps more sinister, than candidate credentials was at play.

Taking this study at face value and in isolation, we might approach this study with a grain of salt and prescribe casual remedies—perhaps, candidates can adopt a nickname in job applications or incentives can be given to employers who perform blind candidate reviews in their recruiting processes. However, if we take this study as a proxy for race or ethnicity and place these findings in the context of centuries of historical discrimination against minorities in the workplace, we might reach a different conclusion.

Recent scholarship on the history of race and ethnicity has highlighted how, in the post-Obama era with the changing demographic landscape of the American workforce, forms of overt racism that were once the norm have evolved into more covert, subjugated expressions. For instance, phrases like “low-income inner-city youth” or “undocumented worker” have come to hold very specific, culturally contingent meanings that are just as stereotypical, but perhaps less direct, than previous forms of overt racism.

In a study done at Wharton, researchers emailed 6,500 professors from 89 different disciplines at over 200 college institutions posing as students seeking meeting time with the professor. The only difference in these emails was the sender’s name: varying from Brad Anderson to Meredith Roberts to Deepak Patel to Chang Wong. Individuals with stereotypical white male names (i.e. Brad Anderson) were 25% more likely to receive a response over both women and minorities.  Faculty at private, more prestigious universities were more likely to discriminate, and racial bias was more pervasive against Asian students. Katharine Milkman, the author of the study told Asian Fortune “Our work highlights that students of Asian descent face significant discrimination along one important pathway in Academia.  In fact, students with Indian and Chinese names faced the most bias of any minority groups studied in our research (which included Black, Hispanic, Indian and Chinese students).”

There are signs that workplace discrimination among Asian Americans may be the worst of any racial or ethnic minority group. According to a Gallup Poll, 30-31% of AAPIs surveyed reported incidents of employment discrimination, the largest of any group, with African Americans constituting the second largest at 26%. However, despite this high percentage of perceived workplace discrimination, AAPIs only filed about 2-3% of the total employment discrimination complaints received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against private employers.

Without intervention, it appears that the situation will only get worse. With the digital age of social media (like LinkedIn) used to source job candidates, the prevalence of information about race, religion, political affiliations, and other identifying characteristics have the potential to become weapons of workplace discrimination. With heightened litigation surrounding affirmative action and discrimination at-large, this litigation might have the adverse effect of discouraging employers from coming forth to report instances of employment discrimination. Finally, as workplaces become flatter and less hierarchical, the team-based nature of the workplace provides more opportunities for “soft” skills and reliance on intangible criteria to play a larger role in employment decisions.

In a recent press release, Advancing Justice—an organization that represents Asian Americans in employment discrimination cases in both individual cases and class actions where Asian Americans and other minority groups have been denied equal employment opportunities because of their race or national origin—cited a number of incidents recently in which Asian Americans have been adversely affected by workplace discrimination.

For instance, in Nevada, Advancing Justice is working on a case in which casino management excluded AAPIs from working at high profile poker tournaments and reduced their shifts after referring to them as “you people” and claiming that they could not speak English properly. The organization has also represented a group of 40 Filipino-American hospital workers who were prohibited from speaking Tagalog and other Filipino languages under a broad-reaching English-only policy that was selectively applied to them in a discriminatory manner.

So, what does this all mean for college students and for those in the workforce?  To be honest, nobody knows. But, what’s undeniable is that the landscape of the American workforce is only becoming more diverse and steps can be taken to improve the reflection of diversity in our offices and our boardrooms. By 2050, there will be no racial majority in the United States.

As candidates and employees, it’s essential that we know our rights. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a full listing of what employers can and cannot ask of you, and cognizance of employment discrimination as a recurring and nuanced issue can help to arm one against becoming a victim of it.  For instance, knowing that a employer cannot ask what religious holidays you observe, your closest relative to notify in case of an emergency, what social organizations you belong to, how long your commute is, how long you plan to work before you retire, or even your maiden name, is the first step towards protecting yourself against employment discrimination.

Asian Fortune is an English language newspaper for Asian American professionals in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Visit fb.com/asianfortune to stay up to date with our news and what’s going on in the Asian American community.