Call Johnny back, and not Jamal!

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Just before he broke into singing the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” while delivering the eulogy in the aftermath of the massacre in Charleston, President Barack Obama said this:

“Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”

Oh my…he went there….he said it!

With those ten words, he managed to connect with, validate and rattle the stark realities of generations past, present and future.

Thus, the deafening laughter you didn’t hear mixed with the crescendo of “Amens” – and high fives you didn’t see around TV sets – were from the many who knew exactly what our president was talking about. With that line alone he sent shockwaves and discomfort on the part of hiring managers – and leaders – across the good old USA. And all for the better.

But for me personally, my euphoria was short lived, soon replaced by an unsettling recent exchange I had with a close friend. It went like this:

 Terry, like the entire family, both of my off springs are Muslim and have challenges finding suitable employment. One son has a BS degree in chemistry from a top notch HBCU (istorically Historically Black College or University) and Master’s degree in Public Health from an Ivy League university. He worked for two years in the Middle East, wants to move to Georgia but has no luck landing an opportunity.

The other, my daughter, is also an HBCU alum with a BS in Chemistry and a Master’s in a health related field from another top notch university. She has done research at Princeton and the University of California for her last employer before her job “went away” about two years ago only to resurface and filled by an insider without a college degree. Our hunch is that their “Muslim sounding” names are causing their resumes to get tossed into wastebaskets despite their educational backgrounds and work experiences. They are at a point of literally changing their names on their resumes to remove them as the suspected barrierWhat are your thoughts?

Needing to step back and give this some serious thought while getting insight from others, I shared this dilemma with the Global Diversity Consortium I founded back in 2006. Here are excerpts from what they told me:

 PERSON A – Terry, your burning hunch is probably right. Studies document that Muslim sounding names have similar effects as Black sounding names in reducing calls and increasing time to get called. For those with Black sounding names, researchers found that 50% more resumes had to be sent out just to get a call back. For Black + Muslim, it might take 2x as many resumes. In addition, if you put the HBCU with “Muslim” there are two areas that may be causing them trouble getting past screeners.To help reduce this bias, if they have non-Muslim sounding middle names, they might use an initial for the first name, then spell out the middle name. For example, K. Adam Blake, instead of Kareem A. Blake. Then they’d only be facing the HBCU bias. It’s wrong for a person to have to hide their name (and/or religion) to try to get an interview, but it is what it is, and it’s hard when one wants or needs a new job and can’t get one due to screening barriers.The one thing they’d know for sure if they got past the initial screening is that there might be less bias in the organization once they got there. Hope this helps.           

PERSON B – If they want a quick fix, they can try and see what happens with a name that can be transfigured until post-interview. If they get a second interview after getting no looks, it is likely that they will have to explain why they didn’t submit with their birth name. May be smart for them to reach out more to their HBCU network. It could be that some professors and/or alumni can help them. It is a challenging market in some instances. At the same time there is a way even with the potential cognitive bias challenges.

PERSON C – Hi Terry. As a non-Muslim with a “Muslim or ethnic sounding name,” who graduated from a Historically Black University, I have encountered the same issue with some additional layers of complexity. While my current position is with a culturally specific agency, I have secured positions at organizations with varying degrees of biases in various areas. This is a difficult issue to overcome, but at the end of the day, you have to make a conscious decision about the personal significance of the compromise. One experience early in my career solidified my decision not to change or modify my name. Quite frankly the experience challenged me to position my name and thereby part of my identity as an asset rather than the liability the marketplace told me that it was. A previous manager asked me to consider using my non-Muslim sounding middle name or go by initials for professional reasons as they felt it would put our constituents at ease. Once I got past the initial shock and insult, I advised the manager that I would not be changing my name. I took  the opportunity to explain the significance of my name and how having a “different” name has made an impact on the development of my professional capabilities (i.e. there was a correlation between me having to constantly “explain” why my parents named me and the skills of problem solving, communication, diplomacy, etc.) 

Just as people may highlight being multilingual, I promote my cultural aptitude as a skill on resumes, cover letters, in interviews, etc. By noting that I am culturally adept, I share that I can lead, motivate, communicate with people from diverse backgrounds. For me, it’s been about understanding the values, culture, and viewpoints of the prospective employer and communicating how and if I believe I am a “fit” for not only the position but also the company. I have gotten feedback that this has often set me apart from other candidates in a positive way. Also, in having to “defend” my name, my professional voice has been strengthened at a very fundamental level. For me, it has set the tone when it comes to things like negotiating compensation, projects and opportunities for advancement. Being HBCU graduates and having accomplished a great deal, I suspect that changing or modifying their names would cause a bit of personal conflict for the two. I suggest that as they weigh their options they consider the “gifts” of their names and how they have prepared them with some of the “soft skills” that so often play a key role in defining successful careers.

 PERSON D – A year ago a woman was recounting an experience she had 15 years prior. She is a Latina and applied for a job and was denied. She got married that following weekend and when she came back to work, the position was still open and she thought she would try with her new last name (had a hunch). Her new last name was something along the lines of Smith and guess what–she got an interview. Coincidence? Unfortunately some stories don’t change under certain circumstances. 

PERSON E – When my husband was looking for a job recently, one of the recruiters blatantly said he had the “right” kind of name. When my husband asked the recruiter what he meant, the recruiter said “oh you know we get a lot of Mohammed’s and Patel’s in the IT sector and clients just don’t want that”. Blatant admitted bias. But the recruiter didn’t even feel embarrassed about it because my husband is a white male and the recruiter thought they’d be in the same team. Obviously my husband said that he preferred not to do business with companies who openly discriminate and excused himself. 

PERSON F – I see no reason why it would NOT be okay to put a nickname on a resume. Look at Bobby Jindal.Typically your legal name is not requested until you have to fill out an application. It is hard enough as it is to find a job with an “American” name, let alone a name that further differentiates you from other resumes. They don’t have to legally change their names but to adopt a nick name that they can use on resumes. This points to a new business opportunity for the Muslim community – a job board for Muslims


1. If you are a leader in an organization how disturbed would you be if you were to discover that you lost some valuable and much needed talent based on the biases pointed out here? What are the odds that this has happened under your watch?

2. In addition to “naming sounding” bias, what other kinds of hidden/subtle biases may be at play that’s seriously eroding the quality of your products and services, your brand as a leader as well as the overall efficiency of your organization?

3. If you are a HBCU (or any university) placement officer charged with preparing graduating seniors for careers, in what ways could this article influence your coaching talented students who possess “different sounding” names? What are the potential risks and rewards of having that frank conversation with them?

4. What process changes, accountabilities and checks and balances could be implemented to mitigate the insidiousness of the biases described in this article?

5. If you are a leader who feels that this article is worth passing along, who might you send it to (and what would you say beyond a meaningless “FYI”)?

(c) Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story teller and trainer who resides in Douglasville, Georgia. Feel free to contact him at for information about his team’s “Out of the shadows; uncovering hidden biases for increasing organizational efficiency.”

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