A Foreign name in The United States

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Having a name like Garun Vagidov is not the greatest advantage in our current political climate. We have Garun, which sounds decidedly middle eastern, and Vagidov, which sounds Russian. I am a Russian American and a citizen of the United States. I have no accent and have lived all over the country and was formally educated in the US from eighth grade on.

After an article that my girlfriend shared with me, I started to think about my name being a potential problem in my current job search. It has dawned on me that there is a large possibility that because of my foreign name, my applications might be disqualified from consideration during review. I have over a decade of experience in programming that spans everything from starting my own businesses, to helping others run their small businesses, to working for large enterprise companies. I have been told by many recruiters and hiring personnel that I have a very impressive resume.

One question I can point to with certainty as being somewhat “namist” that I frequently get is my citizenship status. It is a question that is technically not illegal to ask a candidate, but the candidate could choose not to disclose the answer as long as they are eligible to work in the United States. Before I became a citizen, questions like that made me feel trapped in a system that does not care about your skills and reduces you to a nine digit number so you can legally work. I have a way out now; I am a citizen, so it’s easy to gloss over this seemingly benign question. However, every time I am confronted with this question, I wonder if this is being asked because my name sounds “foreign,” and I am curious whether or not “Bob Smith” gets the same question.

Should a name matter when evaluating a resume? There is quite a bit of complexity involved in a person’s interpretation of a name. I believe that most people are good people with internalized racism. When someone passes by a resume with a foreign sounding name, it might be that they don’t even realize that they have done this. This internalized racism could be a learned response to a stimulus. An internal dialogue might be, “the last 10 people with a foreign name have not worked out, next”, or “oh I really don’t like all the news about Russia, it really stresses me out, oh, a Russian sounding last name, no thank you”. And it’s rarely “USA, USA, USA, bald eagle! What’s this-a foreign name?! Not in THIS company!”

The good news is that there is something every company can do to combat this bias. Employees need to be reminded at least once a week about the biases that we are often unknowingly harboring. There should be a reminder to check one’s assumptions about names and genders of the candidates. You should feel badly if you passed someone by in the past based on their name or gender, and you should remember that you are not perfect and will make these mistakes. You should be aware of your own internal dialogue and should always be vigilant about not slipping into your own prejudices. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. Being a good human that treats everyone equally is a LOT of work. And all that work is part of undoing the years of bad habits that we have accumulated. Everyone has them and the only way to move forward is to recognize, acknowledge, and actively try to combat them.

I refuse to change my name to be a more “American” name, arguing that if the person in the company is racist against a name, then it’s not a company I want to work for. I suppose it is tough to be part of companies that get accused of being discriminatory on the basis of one employee. But hey, you, the reader, will now know that discrimination does happen, even to privileged white males. And if you are one of those who discriminates based on names, you will never get to this point of the article, and I really wish you would.