A rose by any other name might get that job

I was surfing the Internet the other day when I stumbled onto one of those advice sites. Someone who called herself “Puppy Love” was asking for readers’ opinions about the wisdom of changing her last name. Seems she has a “typical all-American” last name like Smith or Jones but wants to change it to the last name of one of her grandfathers. Seems he’d emigrated from Bolivia so, of course, the new last name would be just a bit more unusual – ethnic – than Smith or Jones. Ms. Love was concerned that, in so doing, she’d become a victim of “last-name discrimination” on the job and, presumably, elsewhere.

The post chosen as the best answer stated that if Ms. Love was not already a victim of bias, then the last-name change would make no difference. Besides, the poster pointed out, discrimination is illegal.

Well, illegal – as we all know – doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. That post reminded me of a 2003 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which reported that African Americans with ethnic-sounding names were twice as likely as whites to be unemployed. This was, at least in part, attributed to data in the study showing that they were 50% less likely than those with “white”-sounding names to get job interviews. These individuals also earned 25% less when they were employed. (Mind you, this was in 2003. Things may have changed since some guy named Barack Obama has been in the news a lot recently.)

Other studies seem to indicate that the problem with names goes deeper. Teachers have demonstrated a tendency to prejudge kids based on their names. That can translate into lower grades. And little girls who have girlier names have been shown to be less likely to study math or science.

Careerbuilder.com and Behind the Name have compiled lists of positive and negative names. For example, if I tell you my name is Lisa or Edward, you’re more likely to see me as intelligent. But if I tell you my name is Oswald, you’re likely to see me as deceitful.

It all has something to do with other peoples’ expectations.

And while that’s easy to condemn, in some ways it’s kind of understandable. I can see that if your first name is Bunnygoogoo, it might be a trifle hard to believe that you’ve come up with the definitive explanation of the origin of life. And if Bunnygoogoo DOES win a Nobel Prize, can you imagine the reaction from bloggers? More than ample reason to sue your parents for abuse.

But I don’t think the problem is limited to the names parents bestow on their children. Nowadays, everyone seems to have an alias of some sort for Internet use. And, many times, that alias is part of an e-mail address. And e-mail addresses are generally included on résumés these days.

So, what if you’re the HR exec who gets a résumé from someone who styles him- or herself as “Puppy Love”? If you’re hiring a veterinarian, that might be a winner. But if you’re hiring a CEO to drag your company out of a scandal, well, hmmmm … maybe “Junkyard Dog” would have a better shot at an interview.

I think people should watch what they call themselves in e-mails or other places on the Internet. After all, if your mom and dad stick you with Bunnygoogoo, that’s bad enough. But if you stick yourself with Bunnygoogoo or Sexybabe or Hunkyhal or any of a gazillion other cutesy names, you’re saying quite a lot about yourself. And it’s stuff you might not want to be saying.