Okay so Shakespeare may not be too proud of the play on words for the headline, but I’m sure he’ll approve of my premise – does the name at the top of your CV make a difference to your employment prospects?
Recently I was contacted by a jobseeker whose personal dilemma inspired this post. Bob (not his real name, obviously) had been looking for work for several months and not getting anywhere, despite numerous applications, so he now suspects his foreign-sounding name has something to do with it.
Bob contacted me in despair and asked if it’s okay to use an alias to get through the door.
Instead of the full ethnic-sounding first name and surname he had been using, Bob wanted to replace the first name with his English-sounding middle name, move the first name to the surname position (as it was less ethnic-sounding than the surname) and drop the surname altogether.
Confusing? Okay, let me spell it out a little more.
So imagine Bob’s full name was Agadenu Bob Hevoskamba (note: I’ve just made up this name for the purpose of this article – if you happen to be called Agadenu Bob Hevoskamba, please don’t sue me); instead of going by this name on his CV, Bob wants to change to just Bob Agadenu in the hope that this “less-threatening” combination might open more doors for him.
Is there anything wrong with this? Well, it all depends on which way you look at it – there’s a legal side and then there’s an ethical side.
The legality and ethics of a CV name change
For jobseekers with non-British names, the temptation to don a false identity on the CV is all too real – especially as previous history indicates a reasonable cause.
Research has shown that people with ethnic-sounding names tend to come off worst when it comes to job applications - one particular 2009 study found:
“…an applicant who appeared to be white would send nine applications before receiving a positive response of either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. Minority candidates with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response.”
At the beginning of this year, Virgin Atlantic received unwelcome media attention over a summons to an employment tribunal on the grounds of racial discrimination, after an African jobseeker was turned down and later accepted for the same job under a fake British name.
With unemployment among black and Asian people in the UK more than double the national average, it’s little wonder many jobseekers in this category are starting to suspect foul play.
Going back to the whole legal/ethical issue…a CV is not a legally-binding document in the same way as application forms – it’s more of a marketing tool, a personal advert, so technically you can write whatever name you want on your CV.
But if you do use a false name (or in Bob’s case, a creative re-arrangement of your own name), and you go on and get the job, you’ll have to come clean with the employer before the – legal – contract is produced and at this stage you may lose the job for providing misleading information in the first place (unless the employer is particularly understanding).
On the ethical side, there are some questions you may want to resolve for yourself before embarking on a cosmetic name change:
- Is it right or fair to mislead your potential employer?
- How true to yourself should you be to land a job?
- Is changing your name denying your true identity…?
Names and perceptions
Whether we like to admit it or not, names are important and they often affect the perceptions we have of people, especially before we meet them.
After the 9/11 atrocities, Tariq Ahmed, a London-based public relations executive, found that his Muslim name was proving a hindrance to his job search so he changed it to the more “user-friendly” Daniel Jacob – first on his CV and then, spurred on by the “amazing” surge of interest from his new identity, legally by Deed Poll.
Tariq’s success as ‘Daniel’ proves that name discrimination is more than a theory, but this isn’t always the case for everyone.
The jobseeker in the Virgin case eventually lost out in the employment tribunal because they discovered it wasn’t actually a straight name substitution, as he had originally made out – his fake persona had been endowed with lots more relevant qualifications and experience than the original CV and therefore that “person” was deemed more suitable for the job.
Eliminate all other possibilities
So if you’re struggling to find a job and you suspect your ethnic-sounding name might be to blame, before you go marching off to the tribunal, ask yourself the following questions to first eliminate all other possibilities:
1) Is my CV strong in both content and presentation?
Busy employers typically spend around 30 seconds looking over a CV before making a decision on whether to shortlist or bin – don’t expect miracles if your CV isn’t up to scratch.
2) Have I included potentially discriminating information on my CV or application?
I once had a CV makeover client who in the ‘interests and activities’ section of their CV stated that they “loved to read the Qu’ran every day” and engage in activities at their local mosque.
There’s nothing wrong with reading the Qu’ran or loving it, but this was a classic case of too much info which could potentially open the client up to unnecessary religious and racial discrimination (check out HR Nasty’s really good blog post on the subject of “Resume Racism, how recruiters really read your resume“).
3) Am I applying for jobs within my existing skills and experience?
In case you haven’t heard, the job market is pretty tough at the moment with more jobseekers than there are jobs, therefore employers have the pick of the field. If you don’t possess the basic skills and experience specified in the job advert, please don’t waste your time applying as you won’t get a look in anyway…honestly, it’s not worth it.
4) Am I taking the time to target my application (and with it CV and cover letter) to just two or three suitable jobs a week?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s far more useful to apply to fewer jobs but spend more quality time on them, than to try and just hit any and everything going. Targeted applications - like targeted CVs - are more likely to be successful, especially when they’re within your skills and experience (as discussed in point number 3).
5) Am I applying for jobs located within reasonable commute from my home address?
Although commuting is the norm these days, if you live too far from where you’re applying to work, you may find yourself disqualified for perceived travel difficulties. One possible way to remedy this would be to address the issue in your (tailored) cover letter – reinforce why you think you’re a good fit for the role and spell out how you plan to overcome the potential travel challenge.
6) Having checked off steps 1-5, have I followed up my applications with a phone call to the employer to ask for feedback?
Feedback is priceless when you can get it. If you don’t receive a rejection letter or email after the decision deadline has passed (if there isn’t one specified, wait around two or three weeks), pick up the phone and call the HR team to ask for some feedback on what you could have done better to get further next time. This may be harder to solicit from bigger organisations with more applications to process, but it’s worth a try anyway – if not for anything else, for your own peace of mind.
If you’re still getting nowhere after taking these steps to eliminate all other possibilities, it may well be time for that name change after all (unless the world becomes the kind of place Martin Luther King dreamt about before then).
And if you do choose that option remember, as the great Shakespeare would affirm, a rose by any other name is still a rose……