Whats in a Name?: Foreign Name Prejudice and Hiring

This is the third and final article in a series on the subject of names! It all started on accident really. A few weeks ago I wrote a post reflecting on how I felt about my name. I liked it so much that I wrote about my daughter’s name and the process we went through as a mixed couple to choose it. As you might have expected I am now going to talk a bit about my dear husband’s name.

My husband has a a long complicated name! Even for a Punjabi it is quite rare and even a bit serious in nature. Names are incredibly important in India. In the United State most people I know choose names for their sounds or family tradition. In India most names have a deep meaning. It is a hope that the tributes of that name may impact the life of the person with that name.  

Punjabi names are exceptionally long, usually in two different parts. Sikh names are traditionally gender neutral, which further teaches the Sikh tradition of gender equality. There are some names that are gender specific( my husband’s name is very masculine so I cant imagine a girl with his name) but it is less common.

Examples of Punjabi names


You can actually mix and match names to get a different name result

So one friend might be named, Gagandeep and other friend may be named Gaganpreet

Many Indians choose nick names. Sometimes it is a western name other times just a shortened version or their original name or sometimes something completely different. For example Jaswinder can become the nickname Jessie.

Many Sikh names are known to have a meaning associated with God. My husbands name is very religious in nature!

His name is Gurucharan

Guru-religious teacher/prophet

Charan-At the feet.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Guru of Sikhism

So the translation is “At the feet of the Prophet”.

I love his name, I believe it is very noble and beautiful!  I have to admit it is a long and very foreign sounding name to Americans. Most Americans that try to say it usually over complicate it. The truth is no one really uses his full name. I dont even use his full name! When we met for the first time he introduced himself as GC, and that is what most people know him as. His family has a childhood pet name. Gaggi. Which I think sounds adorable! I could never use this name for him because I imagine a very small child.

It has really shocked me to realize that something as simple as a name can effect a person’s life so dramatically! Here is his story. 

My husband and I were married the weekend before graduating from college. He had to switch his visa from a student visa to a greencard once we were married. It took about six months for this process. He was not allowed to legally work during that time. He literally had to wait and do nothing. I was pregnant and working nights and we were struggling. He wanted to provide for our family but could not, and he was frustrated! He had a masters degree and spent his days watching TV. Once we got that green card in the mail we were overjoyed. He jumped right into the job search! He looked everywhere. Sent out hundreds of applications and resumes.  He heard nothing for over a year! Not a single interview! He finally took a job at a gas station making minimum wage because we needed the money!  He felt defeated.

One day I decided to go over his resume and cover letter to see if I could make any improvements. Everything looked great. I made one suggestion, to change his name on his resume from his full name Gurucharan to his nick name GC. He was resistant to this idea, thinking that GC sounded too informal. He also thought that resumes required the full legal name, but I explained that applications require legal name but resume can be any name that people call you.We decided to give it a try, there was nothing to loose.

With in a week he received three calls for interviews that resulted in two job offers. Our whole life changed in a single moment! He had finally started on his career path!

We were so happy, but there was a part of me that was really upset!

Did his name really keep him from getting a job? This could not be a coincidence!

We had suffered and gone without for two years while my husband had the qualifications for a much better job.  All because of his name! To this day I am still very upset that we went through all of those struggles simply because some hiring manager made conclusion about my husband based on his name alone?

Were these people afraid to say his name wrong on a phone call requesting him for an interview?

Did they think that he would not speak English or would not fit into the working environment because of being foreign?

Did these people understand the effect that they had on our family?

I had read studies in the past about how traditionally African American names effected a person’s ability to get a call back for an interview in comparison to traditional “white” names.

“In a study done by The National Bureau of Economic Research, 5000 resumes responded to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston newspapers. Half the resumes were send with African-American names and the other half were send with white-sounding names. The number of callbacks for each resume received for interviews was counted. Thus, they experimentally manipulated perception of race via the name on the resume. The results indicate large racial differences in callback rates to a phone line with a voice mailbox attached and a message recorded by someone of the appropriate race and gender. Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. This would suggest either employer prejudice or employer perception that race signals lower productivity.”(i)

Even Forbes, a Buisness magazine has a article titled

“Have a Foreign-Sounding Name? Change it to Get a Job” (ii)

There needs to be more study done on the topic of foreign names and the chances of getting a job. The study I cited above was done in cities with diversity.

At the time my husband was looking for a job in Sonoma County, Northern California where my family lived and I worked. The population is mostly white and Latino. This may have further effected his ability to get a job , where most people had not  interacted personally with a person from India.

It angers me to know that some thing as simple as a name can change a person’s chances of success. That people with the power to hire can make such an opinion based on such little information. My husband’s name is beautiful! Its long, but it has deep meaning! To this day he still applies for jobs with his shortened named knowing that using his full name can mean failure. 


2 thoughts on “Whats in a Name?: Foreign Name Prejudice and Hiring

  1. Unfortunately it’s true. All he needed was for the hiring person to meet him and judge him as a person, not just a foreign name. I can definitely understand why people with foreign sounding names sometimes change their first name to an American sounding/spelling name. I know there was a lot of this type of prejudice against people with Arab names in the US after 9/11. Prejudice and discrimination are both alive and well, unfortunately, in our great melting pot.

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