How your name could be a barrier to your career success

How your name could be a barrier to your career success

Elizabeth Bromstein|

What’s in a name? That which we call an Angus, Bensom, Jenkins or Sherman by any other name would work as hard, be as qualified and bring as much to the table… surely.

But if that other name happened to be…oh, say, Leszczynska, Katorjevskaya, Scigaczewski or Tverdokhleb, they might be less likely to get the job. So says new research by Dr. Simon Laham at the University of Melbourne and Dr. Adam Alter at New York University Stern School of Business.

In the report, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Laham and Alter found that having a simple, easy-to-pronounce name is more likely to win you pals and props in the workplace. Five studies, they say, provide evidence for what they’re calling the “name-pronunciation effect,” which means that people with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difcult-to-pronounce names.

According to Stern.nyu.edu, the study revealed that:

“People with more pronounceable names were more likely to be favored for political office and job promotions.

“Political candidates with easy-to-pronounce names were more likely to win a race than those without, based on a mock ballot study.

“Attorneys with more pronounceable names rose more quickly to superior positions in their firm hierarchies, based on a field study of 500 first and last names of US lawyers.”

The report’s abstract explains that “These effects obtain independent of name length, unusualness, typicality, foreignness, and orthographic regularity.” So, an unusual or foreign name is fine, as long as we can say it. An example, I guess, if we’re talking political office, would be “Obama.” While a common enough Luo surname in Africa (it’s also a Japanese name), it wasn’t all that familiar to a lot of North Americans five years ago, before the current American president took office, but its pronunciation is perfectly straightforward, which this study suggests was good news for Barack Obama.

Lead author Laham said “Research findings revealed that the effect is not due merely to the length of a name or how foreign-sounding or unusual it is, but rather how easy it is to pronounce.”

And Alter says this effect probably also exists in other industries, besides law (because that’s the only one they studied). He says we’re simply not aware of the subtle impact that names can have on our judgments.

Alter said, “It’s important to appreciate the subtle biases that shape our choices and judgments about others. Such an appreciation may help us de-bias our thinking, leading to fairer, more objective treatment of others.”

The researchers used names from Anglo, Asian, and Western and Eastern European backgrounds and had subjects rate them on their “fluency,” among other things, assigning a rating between 1-7. The four names in the opening paragraph of this article – Angus, Bensom, Jenkins and Sherman – rated highest for fluency, while the four in the second paragraph – Leszczynska, Katorjevskaya, Scigaczewski and Tverdokhleb – ranked lowest.  Leszczynska earned a fluency rating of 1.55 and Sherman a 7.

In between were names like Chondroyannos, Cruickshank and Garraghty, all of which earned fours.

You can view the entire paper here and judge what you think of the results for yourself.

Do you think you have dismissed people based on the pronounceability of their name? Like, “Who’s next on this list of applicants? Let’s see…sci…sky…siggaksow…ah, forget it.  We’ll be here all day! Let’s move on to the next one. Grant! Now we’re talking…”

If you have a hard-to-pronounce name, do you think it has worked against you? And would you change your name to something more pronounceable if you thought it would level the playing field? Discuss!


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