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What's In a Name (Hint: a lot!)

What’s in a Name? How Unconscious Bias Affects Recruitment

Modern recruiters are trained to evaluate resumes for a potential match, screening for skills and accomplishments. The first words a recruiter sees are likely those at the top of the page…the candidate’s name. While many of us would not knowingly use the gender or ethnicity of a candidate to make a hiring selection, research shows this is a prime area for unconscious bias to lurk. HR practitioners can take proactive steps to avoid unconscious discrimination based on a candidate’s moniker.

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. This underlying prejudice may play a large role in how we let gender influence our candidate selections. For example, you may have grown up with a mother or aunt in the healthcare profession and instinctively think of nursing as a female profession. It may be hard to believe that you could come into the recruiting process with an unconscious bias that men are less suited for a career as a nurse based on a connection your brain made years ago between women and healthcare. But it is true and could affect how critical you are of a resume coming from a male candidate.

Believe it or not, there is a lot in a name. Implicit gender bias can affect us even in life and death situations. Hurricanes, for example, are identified using a naming system created by the World Meteorological Organization. A University of Illinois study suggested that hurricanes with female names cause nearly three times more deaths than hurricanes with masculine names. The study posits that people perceive female-named storms with less danger potential, based on the associations of women as being gentle. In turn, people with this unconscious association do not take proper precautions, resulting in a larger number of deaths.

It is worth your time to evaluate where you hold preconceived notions based on gender. Standout point – if you have a brain, you have unconscious bias. EVERYONE has unconscious bias. The part of your brain responsible for making quick decisions uses a thought process shortcut. Your unconscious draws from past connections to come to expedient conclusions, such as solving a simple math problem like 2+2. This is the same part of the brain that manages activities like reacting to facial expressions or, ahem, associating personal characteristics with occupational stereotypes. It is easy to see how screening resumes in a fast-paced environment could lead to drawing conclusions based on your unconscious bias.

Awareness is the first step. Step 2 involves taking action to balance the scales. One option: slow down. Trip up your natural tendency to speed through reviewing resumes, a task you have done before, so that you can use facts to evaluate. Another option: use a blind resume review process. Cover the name of candidates when evaluating resumes to remove the opportunity for your brain to jump in with an irrelevant connection. Many sophisticated applicant tracking systems include an option to view resumes in this format.

Find a mechanism that enables your recruitment team to be mindful as they look for top talent. After all, recruiting’s product is a living, breathing, contributing part of your company’s future. Treat it with care.


Bates, J (October 15, 2019). How Are Hurricanes Named? Here's What You Need to Know. Time.

Neuroleadership Institute. (July 22, 2020). Here’s Why Having a Brain Means You Have Bias. Your Brain at Work.

Oskin, B. (June 2, 2014). Gender Bias May Make Female Hurricanes Deadlier. Live Science.

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