Working for Justice

What’s in a Name? A Starting Point for Building a More Inclusive Workplace

Posted May 11th, 2021 by Lucy Zhou in Employment Discrimination.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (“AAPI”) Heritage Month, which celebrates the contributions of the AAPI community to the history and culture of the United States. With the rise of anti-Asian violence since the start of the pandemic, many have been wondering how they can be better allies to the AAPI community.

One simple starting point to foster a more inclusive workplace for your AAPI colleagues—and any colleagues, for that matter—is to make a concerted effort to pronounce their names correctly. Names are so closely intertwined with identity and can reflect cultural, historical, and religious significance. Repeated mispronunciation of a coworker’s name is a common microaggression that can, whether intentional or not, cause that coworker to feel disrespected and devalued. Refusal to learn to pronounce Asian names in particular both fuels and reinforces the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, in a feedback loop that otherizes and ostracizes AAPI individuals.

Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to combat name-based microaggressions and bias in the workplace.

If you’re not sure how to pronounce a coworker’s name, just ask. Not bothering to ask for pronunciation help, or avoiding someone’s name altogether, is often less about the difficulty of pronunciation and more about an unwillingness to learn. As actress Uzo Aduba’s mother famously said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Pronunciation doesn’t have to be perfect: some sounds may be difficult for certain people to say, regardless of intention or practice, but it’s the effort—and the signaling of who is worthy of effort—that counts. And if you forget how to pronounce someone’s name, don’t be embarrassed to ask again. It can be as simple as, “I know we’ve gone over this before, but I want to make sure I’m pronouncing it accurately. Would you please say your name for me again?”

Even if you feel uncomfortable asking your coworker more than once, there are other ways to confirm how to pronounce someone’s name. For example, you could ask others with whom you work how to pronounce a colleague’s name. Social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn now include options for users to provide a pronunciation guide or recording of their names. Human Resources could also collect pronunciation information as part of the new employee onboarding process, just as it collects demographic data like age, race or ethnicity, gender, and personal pronouns.

Don’t give a coworker a nickname without their consent. Stories abound of Asian Americans being mocked for and pressured to Anglicize their names. Shortening or Anglicizing someone’s name without their permission, however, effectively minimizes their identity and prioritizes your comfort over theirs. Though you can ask a colleague whether they prefer to go by their full name or another name, don’t make assumptions. Pay attention to how they introduce themselves or sign off on their emails, and then follow their lead.

An employer’s repeated request for an employee to change their name, or the employer’s insistence on using a different name over the employee’s objections, could even subject the employer to legal liability. In El-Hakem v. BJY, Inc., the plaintiff, Mamdouh El-Hakem, alleged that his manager found “Mamdouh” difficult to pronounce and insisted on referring to him instead as “Manny.”[1] The manager also expressed the belief that a “Western” name would be more acceptable to BJY’s clientele.[2] At trial, a jury found the employer liable for intentional race discrimination and hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil rights Act and awarded the plaintiff compensatory and punitive damages.[3] On appeal, the Ninth Circuit rejected the employer’s argument that “Manny” is not a racial epithet, finding that “[a] group’s ethnic characteristics encompass more than its members’ skin color and physical traits” and that “[n]ames are often a proxy for race and ethnicity.”[4] While the Ninth Circuit found that the use of the name “Manny” was not severe, it found it sufficiently pervasive to create a hostile work environment.[5]

Review your hiring practices for name-based bias. Research shows that the name listed on a resume can have a statistically significant effect on callback rates. In one well-known study, researchers sent hypothetical resumes in response to a variety of advertisements in two major newspapers in the United States. Names on the otherwise identical resumes were selected to sound either distinctively Anglo-Saxon or distinctively African-American. The study found that the jobseekers with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely than their counterparts to receive callbacks. In another study of fictitious job applicants with distinctively Asian or African-American names, the job applicants who “whitened” their resumes, including by changing their names or excluding race-focused organizations and awards, were more likely to get callbacks for interviews.

There may be a number of reasons why names prompt discriminatory behavior in the hiring process: an “ethnic-sounding” name may trigger stereotypes, suggest lack of assimilation or cultural fit, or cause psychological discomfort because of pronunciation difficulties. Indeed, research shows that people with names that are easier to pronounce are more well-liked and considered more trustworthy than those with names that are harder to pronounce.

Hiring managers should be aware of unconscious bias against names in the recruitment process and resist the mental shortcuts that may lead us to believe that someone’s name gives any insight into their qualifications. To combat name discrimination, some companies have even instituted anonymized hiring, removing applicant names and/or other information unrelated to merit from the resume screening process.

This AAPI Heritage Month, we can help uplift the AAPI community with a simple commitment to learn how to pronounce Asian names and to call out name-based microaggressions when we see them. Honoring the pronunciation of names with which we are unfamiliar can go a long way toward increasing everyone’s sense of belonging, both in the workplace and beyond.

Footnotes

[1] El Hakem v. BJY Inc., 415 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2005), cert. denied, 547 U.S. 1004 (2006).
[2] Id.
[3] Id. at 1072.
[4] Id. at 1073.
[5] Id. at 1073–74.

Lucy Zhou is an Associate in the Baltimore office of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP. She received a bachelor’s degree in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought from Amherst College and a J.D. from NYU School of Law.
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