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Does an Old-Fashioned Name Hinder Your Job Prospects?

In some cases, age discrimination may be at work

Illustration of the names Frank, Gladys, Oscar and Mabel

Mark Butchko

When I was pregnant with my daughter, we were at a loss for a name that would suit her. Of course, we heard lots of suggestions from well-meaning friends and family, but we wanted to make sure the name we gave her would go the distance, so to speak. We wanted to avoid a trendy name that might make her feel silly in 20 or 30 years, and we certainly didn't want her to have to explain our bad choice for the rest of her life.

So we devised a plan: Whatever baby name either of us brought to the table had to sound OK with “Grandma” or “Grandpa” in front of it. The idea was that, when she was a grandparent, her grandkids wouldn't be calling her “Grandma Unicorn” or something of the kind. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

And it worked, particularly since my husband visited a nursing home often as he took care of the patients in his practice. He would come home with ideas like “Ophelia,” “Mildred” and “Mabel,” all from the lovely ladies he cared for during the day. We both loved the idea of using an older name for our child, one with history or that honored a cherished relative. Ultimately, we decided on “Genevieve,” after my grandmother, and it suits her perfectly. “Grandma Genevieve” has a lovely ring to it, right?

Well, according to human resource professionals, we may have done our daughter a disservice by giving her a vintage name.

In a 2017 study in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers studied 610 HR professionals and their recruitment processes. Their research found that implicit age cues may play a role in how an applicant is perceived. “Names might indicate in a subtle, indirect way a person's chronological age and applicants might not be aware of such a subtle and honest signal (i.e., age-related association) in their résumés,” they stated.

Though research has been mixed, Craig Vakiener, human resources manager for Pencor Services Inc. in Pennsylvania, says that he does, in fact, see what he calls “historical names” frequently while reviewing applications. But, he says, old-fashioned names are making a comeback in the younger generations. “It used to be that if you saw an old-fashioned name, you could tell the age of the applicant. Nowadays, though, with the trend towards using family and historically based names, it's impossible to judge an applicant by the name on the résumé,” Vakiener tells Disrupt Aging.

Vakiener adds that while his company works hard to streamline the application process so that applicants aren't discriminated against based on the “age” of their names, he says it can, and does, happen in some companies. In short, someone with an old-fashioned-sounding name may be perceived as being older than the ideal job applicant. But he reiterates that the tide is turning because of the resurgence of old-fashioned names.

In addition, a New York University study found that those with easier-to-pronounce names had a leg up when it came to moving up the corporate ladder.

While we'd like to believe our names don't play our age hand, ageism in the workplace is real. Certain details like whether you have a disability, your race, your religion and your sex are protected from discrimination, but it is difficult for humans to be unbiased when it comes to judging a candidate's name, even within strict hiring parameters. (A 2017 study found that even having an ethnic name, regardless of education, can harm job response rates.)

While you can't lie on your résumé, Vakiener says you can find acceptable ways to modernize your moniker if it concerns you. If your first name is Gladys and your middle name is Katherine, consider using “G. Katherine Smith” on your CV. Get your foot in the door, let them see you shine, then once you're hired you can let people know what you prefer to be called. “A good HR manager will scan the talents and accomplishments of the applicant's résumé and spend very little time examining the origin of a person's name,” Vakiener concludes.

So don't panic or head to the Social Security office to change your name to Apple or Archie. There's no substitute for a professional reputation and solid work experience in a field, particularly with regards to journalism and academia.

This research is just a reminder that we shouldn't judge anyone by a given name, even if it's North Psalm Saint West — or whatever a Kardashian has called her latest child.

Do you think you've been discriminated against because of your name? Tell us about it in AARP's online community.

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