I had a fun interview about my dissertation! Here’s the result:

Journalist Alina Dizik interviewed me earlier this month, as she put together this article for BBC’s “Capital” section. The article’s original location is here: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20140225-would-you-hire-a-parkshit


26 February 2014

Would you hire a Parkshit?
by Alina Dizik
Name tags (Flickr/Getty)Name tags (Flickr/Getty)

When Malaysian-born Norhidayah Binti Nazarudin moved to the United States after a stint working in Japan, she was ready for a new name that was more familiar to her colleagues.

So Nazarudin, whose family still calls her Hidayah, became Heidi, a popular American name. As a banker turned blogger, she believes Heidi gets her more attention than her birth name and work contacts have confessed they were previously unsure how to pronounce her given name and hesitant to approach her for work-related questions.

Changing your name to fit in better at the office or as an expat might seem extreme, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Some people want to offload an embarrassing moniker and others, like Nazarudin, want to Anglicise their name for work.

There’s good reason, say some experts and name-changers. As an increasing number of people relocate abroad for work, names that seem average in one country can seem awkward somewhere else. Many people now seek name changes – whether official or simply nicknames – as a ticket to more callbacks from potential employers and better treatment by colleagues.

At the same time, human resource and hiring managers review hundreds of CVs per week, and research in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK shows that there is some bias when it comes to calling back candidates with non-Anglicized names, says Marie Wilson, a professor at the University of South Australia Business School who’s researched the topic.

“Names are often the first thing that a potential employer encounters, and names may trigger stereotypes about men and women, or about a particular ethnic group,” she said her research found.“Migration and global careers, lead to a greater emphasis on having a name that travels well,” said Wilson. Rather than pursuing a name change legally, Wilson says more people now use nicknames to “localize” themselves.

And using a more ambiguous name isn’t always a way to keep the part of the world you come from vague. Using a different name on business cards or a CV doesn’t require going through red tape. Ari Abitbol never needed to legally shorten her name from Arielle. But she says using a shortened version, Ari, professionally helps when finding work in the reality television industry where most of her colleagues are male, she said.

After graduating from college she experimented with using Ari on her CV and created a new email address using the name. She says more of her queries were answered after she began to use a more male-sounding name, she said. “I wasn’t getting as many bites until I changed my name,” said Abitbol, 27, who is based in New York.

Legal hurdles

Changing your family name, however, can prove more problematic. It can be much more complicated than the first name, says Axle Davids, 46, who was previously Axle Dickman. Davids, who lives in Toronto, decided on the name change after comments about the meaning of his given name detracted from the serious conversation when he introduced himself in a professional setting. He felt self-conscious when sharing his last name and didn’t want to pass down the teasing to his own kids.

It took two years to complete all of the required paperwork but having a more common name was worth it, he said. The surname Davids — which came from part of his mother’s maiden name, Bar-David, as inspiration — raises few eyebrows.

“When I am introduced to new people – particularly in a business context — my last name isn’t the first topic of conversation,” he said.

Malaysian-born Norhidayah Binti Nazarudin changed her name to Heidi after moving to the US and quickly received more queries for work. (Courtesy Heidi Nazarudin)

While Diane Dechief, who interviewed 23 name changers in Canada as part of her PhD dissertation on the impact of personal names says it can be bittersweet to say goodbye to a birth name.

“People were sort of happy, but disappointed, that something like their name could stop them from [accessing]opportunities,” because a name is both easy to change to remedy that, but also a very personal attachment, she said.

When Dechief, now a lecturer at Montreal’s McGill University, studied employers as part of her research, she said a non-Anglican name signaled to some that the candidate had recently immigrated to Canada, even if the person’s experience showed this was not the case. In a 2011 study of 7,000 resumes that highlighted identical experience except for their ethnic-sounding names, applicants with English-sounding names received 35% more callbacks on average, says Dechief, who helped conduct the research.

In later research, most of her subjects said the career opportunities with a “pruned” name seemed worth the hassle.

Family values

Not all name changes are accepted at face-value by employers, warned Roy Cohen, a New York-based career coach. For instance, if someone changed their name to cover up past media attention or a firing, it can backfire. But employers typically accept changing a name to avoid unfair ethnic or gender stereotyping, said Cohen who is author of the Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.

Additionally, coworkers or work acquaintances can sometimes feel uncomfortable pronouncing a name that has a different connotation in another language, said Cohen who advised a client named Parkshit to shorten his name to Park. “When a new name allows you to feel more confident, then it’s the answer,” he said.

Nazarudin said family and friends who’ve formed an emotional attachment to your previous name, often don’t realize the career hurdles involved in keeping it. Sometimes the new name can make a close family member feel disrespected. So plan ahead so a career move doesn’t cause trouble at home.

“My father took it a bit personally,” said Nazarudin, who told him to keep calling her Hidayah. “But I told him it was a business decision.”

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