We may think that we live in a day and age where a name doesn’t make or break your chances of getting a job, but sadly the opposite is the case. One particular type of employment discrimination involves companies that play the name game, judging the desirability of an employee based on the sound or look of a first or last name.

Rather than using objective hiring criteria, companies sometimes place a biased emphasis on names, particularly excluding job candidates with ethnic sounding names or names suggesting a foreign national origin.

The problem with such practices is that they are illegal and could land an employer in a heated lawsuit if left unchecked. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on national origin and race, among other categories. The law applies to all companies with 15 or more employees and covers all areas of the employment process, including hiring.

This means that if an employee suspects he has not been hired based on his or her name, it could be an illegal act of discrimination, and a lawsuit could legitimately be filed, pending an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). One of the most common forms of name discrimination is racial name discrimination, and a number of studies have proven that employers engage in hiring bias based on the racial sound of job candidates’ names.

What Studies Say About Racial Name Discrimination

In fact, the National Bureau of Faculty Research (NBER) recently produced a study showing that racial name discrimination is persistent in the workplace. The study, conducted by NBER fellows Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, revealed that today’s workplace is still challenged with leveling the playing ground between races when it comes to hiring. In the study, job applicants with white names tended to fare better in hiring situations than candidates with African-American names.

The researchers answered want-ads in Chicago and Boston newspapers using resumes with traditional white sounding names and with notably African-American names. About 5000 resumes were sent to employers, each with varying degrees of job experience and quality. The results were that resumes with white sounding names were more likely to get call backs after sending 10 resumes. For African-American resumes, it took 15 resumes before the first call back.

The fact that resumes with white sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks on average than resumes with African-American sounding names indicates that racial discrimination is still prevalent in the workplace, and that name discrimination does in fact exist.

Another factor revealed in the study showed the effect of improved credentials on employers’ perceptions. It found that the effect of improved or higher quality credentials had a greater impact for candidates with white sounding names while higher quality credentials had little to no effect on employers reviewing resumes with African American names.

Theses biases in name discrimination do not stop with African Americans. Other races can also experience name discrimination. In particular, the Asian race has been found to be susceptible to this type of discrimination. A study concerning the experiences of Asian college students conducted at Wharton School found that students with white sounding names were 30 percent more likely to get extra time with professors than students with traditionally Asian sounding names.

A 2005 Gallup Poll revealed that 31% of Asians reported incidents of discrimination, even more than African Americans who were the second highest ethnic group to report discriminatory incidents on the job.

What You Can Do about Name Discrimination

The NBER study reveals that African Americans still face significant hurdles in getting to the interview stage. Much of what individual races experience as a result of bias based on their names could constitute illegal discrimination according to civil rights laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits such discrimination and requires that employees file a charge with the EEOC when it is suspected.

In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), the Supreme Court ruled that an employee may prove hiring discrimination by adequately showing four elements:

  1. The employee made an application for the position sought and was qualified.
  2. The employee is a member of a Title VII protected group.
  3. The employee did not receive a job offer
  4. The employer continued to look for job candidates with similar qualifications.

These four elements raise a presumption of discrimination which can be rebutted by an employer if the employer can prove that the job was not offered to the candidate based on a legitimate lawful reason.

Studies like the NBER study seem to support employees who suspect they have experienced name discrimination. If a prospective employee can show the requisite four elements are in place concerning a hiring experience, it would at least force the employer to prove there was a different reason other than discrimination that the job candidate was not hired.

Starting at a local EEOC office can help determine whether the discrimination has occurred and what can be done to remedy it.  The EEOC investigates claims of hiring discrimination and determines whether the organization would like to sue an employer on behalf of the job candidate. If the EEOC decides not to pursue the case, the job candidate is free to file a lawsuit in a court of law. Job candidates could get a second chance at applying for the job if the lawsuit is successful.

What You Can Do If You Suspect Hiring Discrimination Based on Your Name

If you suspect you were not hired due to name discrimination, it’s a good idea to contact an attorney with experience handling employment discrimination cases. A qualified attorney will inform you of your options and the next steps necessary to pursue a name discrimination case. It’s important to keep records of correspondences between yourself and potential employers and to note specific dates and incidences which you think demonstrate name discrimination. These may come in handy during an EEOC investigation and in a court case as well.

Job candidates should be able to go through the hiring process without facing unfair bias based on the sound of their name and the race or national origin that name may or may not seem to represent. Keep in mind that there are potent anti-discrimination laws in place at both the state and federal level designed to give every worker a fair chance at finding employment, regardless of the look or sound of their names.