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Whats in a name?

By Sneha Khilay, Managing Director at Blue Tulip Training and speaker at RI's Diversity in Recruitment Conference

'What's in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'  William Shakespeare.

I recently conducted a bullying and harassment investigation for a large organisation.  I interviewed a witness who, despite being told my name both by email and at the start of the meeting, asked if she could call me 'Mary'. I must confess, given the serious nature of the interview, I was surprised and rather uncomfortable at this request.

Generally, I am in awe of the multicultural aspect of the UK. However, the witness's response made me question whether we have made as much progress around diversity as we like to believe.  I recall, when at school over 35 years ago, that during registration there would routinely be heavy pauses as teachers tried to read my name and then state, along the lines of, 'the girl with the foreign name that I can't be bothered to pronounce'.  This was also aligned with a stream of awkward corrections as teachers tried to pronounce my name, to which their main response was 'Why can't we call you 'Sue'; it would make our life so much easier?'

What is the trigger of discomfort, this resistance to foreign names?  Whilst we indulge in celebrities' giving their children unusual (and some might consider them outlandish) names, for instance Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter Apple, or David Beckham's daughter Harper Seven, do we resort to past patterns of experience to create, even insist on familiarity because it provides some form of safety?

Mohammed Siddique*, a well-established and successful entrepreneur, made a conscious decision to anglicise his name.  He explained that, given he had adapted his dress, his accent and even his diet to be accepted in Britain, it seemed only logical to adapt his name to overcome hurdles, get results and be successful.  His established clients admitted that they would not have contemplated doing business with companies whose MD had such a foreign-sounding name.  Mohammed acknowledged that he was weary of the negative, terrorist-related connotations around his names, especially in airports; so much so that he is now considering changing his name by deed poll.  Does this mean that some immigrants have needed to anglicise, adapt or even ditch their foreign sounding names despite living in an evolving, multicultural Britain and its heavy focus on equality legislation?

I am aware that, amongst friends and colleagues, there is a dichotomy about changing names.  Some believe that having an ethnic and /or unusual name limits their recruitment opportunities and career progression.  Others believe strongly that the solution to the problem of latent, subliminal bias in recruitment and promotion is to take authority and anglicise their name.  Others change their names simply to fit in, acknowledging that their foreign name is hard to pronounce and it is therefore more convenient and sociable to adapt their name or create a nickname to which their peers can warmly respond.  It is common knowledge that Barack Obama used 'Barry' rather than his birth name whilst at college.  One colleague acknowledged that her family changed their surname to an anglicised spelling, as they had been living in UK for some years and wanted to be fully integrated into the society which they had become part of.  She added that, had the changes to her name been imposed on her, she would have felt resentful.

On the flip side, many feel strongly that, by changing their name, they are negating their sense of self, betraying their culture and eradicating an important part of their ethnic identity, that too only in favour of social convenience.  Others believe that anglicising their name would be a mockery, a sense of contempt of their identity.  Their argument is that names can be broken down into short syllables and colleagues can get used to unusual names after repeating it a few times, just like learning any other new word.  One friend said she could not bear to be insulted with the term 'coconut' - white on the inside and brown on the outside were she to anglicise her name and not be true to her roots and origins.

Fundamentally this is about choices.  It is apparent that - not just in the UK - but in other parts of the world, there is a degree of contempt and prejudice against ethnic minorities.  The issue is whether people choose to change their name to get their foot in the door, whatever that door represents.  Is there a willingness to take time to explain and understand the correct pronunciation of a name, perhaps its meaning whilst facilitating a productive conversation in the process? 

In the situation with the witness, whether her reasons were; fear, ignorance, anxiety or even lack of effort, she indicated an indifference about my name and wanted to impose a name familiar to her but not right for me.  The crippling aspects of indifference, negative judgement or even apathy - an 'I can't be bothered', attitude leaves me wondering if British organisations, despite advancements in equality legislation, are taking one step forward and two steps back if there are in favour of only British-sounding names.

'Our job as recruiters is to send what we deem to be the right CV to our clients.  If I put forward a candidate with an unusual or a foreign name, 90% of the time I will hear nothing.  When there are 300 CVs to go through any foreign name is likely to be deleted without even being opened.  We feel dreadful about it but essentially it is a matter of time saving'.  Guardian April 12 2013

*Names have been changed

Want to hear more from Sneha? Come along to our Diversity in Recruitment Conference: click here!

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