Asian Names in the Workplace

Digitally out of focus image of an asian woman.

Filling out forms is stressful. There is an irrational anxiety of getting it wrong, no matter how straightforward the information is. Perhaps it’s a missing digit in an ID number or a case of misreading the instructions. But the boxes titled First Name and Last Name should not be the source of stress. After all, you’ve written your name countless times. How could you get it wrong?

For non-Americans who are about to complete their first university applications, their first job applications, or even their tax returns, this is a unique form of stress: the stress of choice. A typical Vietnamese name usually consists of three to four components: the family surname, middle name(s), and the personal name, in that order. This does not lend well to the First-Last name convention of the West, where Vietnamese people must reverse their name, and omit certain components. Many other Asian names also face a similar process of butchering.

Applicants with Asian names are 28% less likely to get callbacks from potential employers, despite having the same education, experience, and qualifications as those with “traditional” Anglo names, according to a recent study by the University of Toronto and Ryerson University in Canada. The findings revealed employers were concerned that Asian applicants would have trouble speaking English or speak with an accent.

Name-based discrimination happens to most minorities. Past studies have shown similar disadvantages for applicants with Black, Hispanic, or Arab sounding names in various degrees.

 

Applicants with Asian names are 28% less likely to get callbacks from potential employers, despite having the same education, experience, and qualifications as those with “traditional” Anglo names

 

The study suggests the solutions to resolve name-based discrimination are clear: reorganize recruitment practices in a way that recognizes the political and historical associations of the recruiter’s and the company’s own bias. But while waiting for companies to address their long-overdue reckoning, what can the aspiring Asian applicant do to get a job?

Some people opt to change their first names to American-sounding ones. This practice has become very common to the point that it’s expected. However, to change one’s own name is a deeply personal choice. Those who choose to do so, for any reason, are valid in their choice. It is a part of one’s self-definition and more than just about ‘compromising’ one’s identity. But underlying the expectation of others, especially those in positions of power such as professors or employers, is a silent order of conformity.

In June 2020, a college professor at Laney College made headlines for asking a Vietnamese student to change her name Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen because it sounded like “F*** Boy” to him. In reality, the name doesn’t sound like that at all, which would have been clear if only the professor had asked her for the pronunciation.

Another (more pragmatic) solution is to include a phonetic explanation of the pronunciation next to your name on the resume. This addition could potentially ease employers of the anxiety from “getting it wrong” and increase your chances of getting interviews, explained Office of Career & Professional Development employee Thomas Guzowski.

It seems rather unjust that the weight of this relies on the individual. It’s difficult not to internalize these findings. Personally, what helps me is remembering that the name is an identifier of my nationality, but it is not an identifier of my innate qualities.

 

About the Author | Quynh Nguyen ’23 is majoring in Economics and International Relations. She is also a reporter at the Redlands Bulldog student newspaper.

By Quynh Nguyen
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