Mispronouncing The Names Of Diverse Candidates – A Stealth Diversity Killer

Mutilating unusual names may seem inconsequential, but it hurts diversity hiring, both now and in the future.

In today’s talent marketplace, every organization is fighting to hire as many diverse and international candidates as they can. Unfortunately, many of these candidates have names that are unfamiliar to most US hiring managers (including Asian, African, Latin, Indigenous, and Religion-based names). It’s quite common for managers and interviewers to frequently butcher the pronunciation of these candidates’ names. You should note that this seemingly simple error can actually become a major recruiting problem. When your diverse candidates experience mispronunciation, it is the first indicator that they won’t fit in your organization. This problem becomes even more impactful when diverse candidates see the mispronunciation as a warning that they are likely to face illegal discrimination if they get the job. Mispronunciation actually becomes catastrophic. Some hiring managers purposely leave some diverse candidates off their interview slate (ending the chances without knowing why) just to avoid the stress and discomfort that they will experience after they inevitably mispronounce the candidate’s name on their first meeting. 

The Butchering Of Diverse Names Is Not An Uncommon Problem

It’s important for recruiting leaders to realize that a seemingly minor mispronunciation problem really isn’t uncommon after all.  A recent study revealed that an amazing 44% of respondents had their names mispronounced in an interview.” The study further revealed that Hispanics were the most impacted, with “59% having their name mispronounced in an interview.” And, among all offenders, department managers ranked #1, while HR came in a close second. Even though we now know that this problem occurs quite frequently, I still call it “a stealth problem” because little action to end the problem is ever taken. The reasons for this inaction may be related to the fact that 50% of white employees said that “they didn’t care” about this problem. And shockingly, a full 9% of the survey respondents said that employers should “just avoid hiring people with difficult names.” 

The Goals Of The “Name Pronunciation Capture” Process 

I call the process that is used to find the perfect pronunciation the “Name Pronunciation Capture Process” (or NPCP). There are three goals for this process, described in the next section.

Goal #1 The Top 7 Ways That Mispronunciations Can Negatively Affect A Diverse Candidate

Realize upfront that hiring managers and recruiters simply won’t take the extra time necessary to learn and practice perfect pronunciation until they fully understand how a single mispronunciation event can damage their chances of landing any diverse hire. Note that the same problems do occur when you spell candidates’ names wrong. The top seven reasons why mispronunciations may hurt your diversity hiring are listed below. 

  1. Diverse candidates may see it as an early indicator that they won’t fit – everyone wants to fit in with their team. However, the candidate may use the obvious lack of preparation and the fumbling with their name as a clear indication that not only will they not fit but that the team won’t be willing to take the time to accommodate their differences.
  2. It may increase their fear that they will be the only diverse person around – when everyone involved in the hiring process has great difficulty with their name. Some candidates will assume that this unfamiliarity is a result of having no diversity on their team.  Unfortunately, their fear of not wanting to “feel alone and isolated” may cause them to drop out of your hiring process altogether. Or to focus on jobs at other companies where they know that they will be working in a much more diverse group.
  3. Any discussion about their unique name may cause them to worry about discrimination – it is an established legal premise in hiring that you must treat all applicants/candidates the same. So they may feel that there treated unequally when, for example, you immediately assign them “a nickname” (but never to nondiverse candidates). Other acts that they might see as discriminatory would be a discussion about their name. The interviewer might ask them about the origin of their name, accent, hairstyle, dress, cultural practices, citizenship status, or country of origin. These are all things that wouldn’t even be brought up with a non-diverse candidate. If they experience enough of these non-job-related inquiries, they may begin to consider legal action. 
  4. It will hurt current and future hiring – a couple of mispronunciation errors might be enough to cause a diverse candidate to drop out of your hiring process. But even one might spur them to tell their friends about their bad experience and to post negative comments about your hiring and interview process on employer comment sites like Glassdoor.com or Indeed.com. When the public reads these negative comments, it will hurt your external employer brand image and discourage other diverse and non-diverse individuals from applying for your jobs. 
  5. Name pronunciation errors may be one of a diverse candidate’s deal-breaker factors – diverse and international candidates that have in the past had extremely bad memories of working under hiring managers and with teammates that were insensitive to the needs of diverse employees. It may have added the mutilation of their name to their “knockout factor list.” If it’s on the knockout factor list, when they experience it, they may immediately ghost you or drop out of your hiring process. And even if they stay, they may have mentally already decided not to accept your job (usually in both cases without telling you why).
  6. A single mispronunciation incident can cause them to have an “ethnic pause” – a candidate that has gone this far in the hiring process has clearly made a commitment to your company. However, after a negative pronunciation event, a diverse person may take what some call “an ethnic pause.” This is where diverse candidates take a pause and begin to rethink everything about your company. In most cases, this pause reduces their interest in your job and company. So after the pause, they may decide to focus on getting a job at another company that exhibits less obvious bias against diverse employees.
  7. It may cause international candidates to realize that there may be a headquarters country bias – in addition to any broad bias against diversity. The top fear of many international candidates is that they will also face a bias in favor of employees that look, think and act like employees in the home country where the company’s headquarters is located. This headquarters/home country bias may cause international candidates who don’t feel like they will fit your expectations to completely drop out of your hiring process. 

And finally, a positive reason – there’s at least one situation where pronouncing a difficult name perfectly actually became a positive in this case, one individual with a Nigerian name reported that his name was mispronounced 99% of the time. So when the hiring manager pronounced his name perfectly the first time without any obvious help from the candidate. The candidate considered this rare occurrence to be “a take your breath away WOW!”

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If you can only do one thing © – ask everyone involved in the hiring process to check their past voicemails from the candidate, in order to see if the candidate pronounces their name during any of them. 

Goal #2 Use The Most Effective Name Pronunciation Capture Tools 

Once you fully understand the many negative reactions that a diverse candidate can have after their name was mispronounced. It makes sense to avoid the problem completely by accurately identifying the 15 most effective name pronunciation capturing tools. These tools can be placed into two categories. The first are tools that find exactly how the person pronounces their own name. While the second category only yields the most common pronunciations for their first and last name. I would be extremely careful about trying other new capture tools. Because I have found that many of the tools and advice recommended by others have serious accuracy and reliability flaws. 

Note: within each category, the tools are listed with the most effective tools listed first.

Tool Category A – Tools that find the precise way that the candidate pronounces their own name.

  1. Search for existing audio recordings with self-pronunciations – search for previously recorded self-pronunciations that are included in the candidate’s past audio and voicemail messages that you possess. These are the best because they leave no room for error.
  2. Create a new audio or video recording by asking them to do something related to the recruiting process – if you don’t have past recordings, cause them to create a new one. Ask them to verify something on a new voicemail recording where they must pronounce their name (usually the fact that they will attend their interview tomorrow). Another approach is to ask them to create a one-minute video introduction that you can share with interviewers. Obviously, in their introduction, they will pronounce their full name. 
  3. Call their voice recording – because most involved in a job search pronounce their name on their voicemail recording. Call them during a time when they are unlikely to answer their phone to see if they have recorded the pronunciation of their name on their voice recording. Alternatively, because most answer their phone by pronouncing their name. Think of an excuse to call them and record the first minute of the conversation. 
  4. Call one of their references and ask them – obviously, their references will know how they pronounce their name. Calling references is easy because you likely already have their names and contact information. Simply ask for their help and record the portion of the call where the reference pronounces their name.
  5. Check their LinkedIn profile for audio pronunciation (problematic) – fortunately, LinkedIn has a feature that allows a person to let others know how you pronounce your own name through the use of a 10-second audio clip. These clips can be found on a candidate’s LinkedIn profile. By clicking on the blue speaker icon that, when it has been activated, appears immediately to the right to their name. Unfortunately, utilizing this approach is problematic because most don’t take the time to activate it. Note if you have a Greenhouse ATS, it has a similar 10-second audio recording feature that can be used after a candidate has been invited to an interview.
  6. Make it the recruiter’s responsibility – it should be standard practice to make it the responsibility of the initial recruiter to ensure that they have captured (both in an audio file and phonetically) how the candidate likes their name to be pronounced. The recruiter must then take responsibility for ensuring that everyone that will interact with the candidate has this pronunciation. 
  7. Search YouTube and other social media for self-pronunciations (problematic) – almost everyone on social media pronounces their name somewhere. So start by searching YouTube for video or audio clips (including how-to videos, panels, or speeches) where they or others pronounce their name. Also, search their personal social media pages for audio or video files that include the pronunciation of their name.
  8. Assign the initial greeter to ask them – not knowing the pronunciation of their name may be more acceptable when it occurs with someone unlikely to know them. For example, during hiring, ask the receptionist or greeter to politely ask the candidate to help them get their name pronunciation perfect. Then have the greater immediately document their name phonetically and repeat it back to the candidate. To ensure that no one can mess up their pronunciation while using the greeter’s phonetic spelling.
  9. Ask one of your employees that already know them (problematic) – if you work for large companies, the odds are that someone already knows this candidate. Begin by asking your recruiter that initially talked to them. But also ask any other coworkers that you know that they have a relationship with. For example, if they are an employee referral, ask the referring employee how to pronounce their name. This approach is problematic because there are cases where none of your employees may already know them.
  10. Ask someone close to them how the candidate pronounces it (problematic)– people that have known the candidate for a long time will know how they like their name pronounced. So try to obtain the correct pronunciation directly from someone who knows this person extremely well. Try to ask the target’s former coworkers, close friends, or family members (their names and their contact information can often be found on social media). However, be careful about contacting current coworkers because that may accidentally reveal that this candidate is actively looking for a job. Realize that this approach is problematic because it is often difficult to find those close to them and/or their contact information.
  11. Record their first interview (problematic) – preparing for the second interview will be easier when you have previously recorded the candidate’s initial interview (audio or video recording). Especially, if you started the first interview by asking them to introduce themselves. Of course, you should pass on the name pronunciation portion of the file to others who will later interview them.
  12. Ask the candidate to phonetically write their name (problematic) – ask the candidate directly to write out the phonetic pronunciation of both of their names. Note that this approach is less desirable because it lets the candidates know that you are unfamiliar with their pronunciation. Realize that phonetic spellings, even those created by the candidate, can be inaccurate or hard to follow. 

Tool Category B – Tools that are limited because they only yield the commonly used pronunciations of the candidate’s name

This category of tools only provides the common pronunciation of their names. Realize that using common pronunciations is always problematic. How a candidate pronounces their name frequently varies significantly from the most common pronunciations. So always try to use multiple sources whenever you are relying on a common pronunciation source. 

  1. Utilize an online pronunciation website (problematic)– you can, for free, easily get an educated guess on the most common pronunciations for many unusual names with the help of some name identification apps. Consider using an app site like https://www.nameshouts.com/. Some of these sites are even crowd-sourced, so try the site How to Pronounce
  2. Ask your employees that share the same name (problematic) – if you work in a large organization. Ask one of your own employees with the same first or last name if there is a consistent, reliable pronunciation for the name they share. Having this employee meet the candidate will also produce their preferred pronunciation. An alternative approach is to ask one of your employees with a similar background for help with the likely pronunciations. However, you must be careful because categorizing candidates and employees can raise potential EEOC issues for your company.
  3. Conduct a general Google search on their name (problematic) – the standard Google search may also reveal whether there are audio or video files where others pronounce either candidate’s names. 

Goal #3Take Actions To Eliminate The Most Damaging Pronunciation Process Errors

There are 11 damaging errors that can occur in many spots throughout the name pronunciation process. So it makes sense to educate everyone about these errors and how to best avoid them.

Note: in this list, the worst pronunciation errors appear first.

  • The #1 most damaging error – Not interviewing qualified diverse candidates in order to avoid any mispronunciation fear – it’s a fact that some interviewers spend many hours worrying about the anxiety they will have because of their fear of mispronouncing a candidate’s name. Unfortunately, to avoid this discomfort and fear. Many hiring managers purposely leave off qualified diverse, and international candidates from their interview slate (this really happens). Obviously, having diverse candidates missing out completely on the chance to interview will dramatically reduce your overall diversity hiring.
  • The #2 most damaging error – Laughing or making fun of a candidate’s unique name – unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence. Getting their name wrong the first time is always a big problem. However, it becomes a catastrophic mistake when everyone in the room cringes with embarrassment after that pronunciation. Unfortunately, it is the most damaging error.
  • Error #3 – Asking them, “Do you have a nickname?” – asking only diverse candidates if they have a nickname will also likely make the candidate feel like they won’t fit in. And this can be made even worse if the employee attempts “to assign them” with a nickname (both practices show your discomfort with diverse individuals and their names). 
  • Damaging error #4 – Asking them how they pronounce their name – asking the candidate bluntly, “How do you pronounce your name?” may seem okay to some. But not when you only ask this question, only because the candidate, either by accent, looks, or name, is from a diverse group. In addition, doing this shows that you didn’t spend the time to do your research, so they begin to feel that they probably aren’t very important.
  • Error #5 – Asking them, “What country are you from?” – after finally getting your name correct. The interviewer often assumes or asks if the candidate is from another country and begins asking about it.
  • #6 -Asking them, “Did I get your name right?” – it’s probably a mistake to ask them even politely if you pronounce their name right (again, you are letting them know that you aren’t familiar with diversity). And alternatively, failing to also ask about the pronunciation when the person has an Anglo name can reveal a pattern of unequal treatment.
  • #7 – Avoiding the use of names – some hiring managers and interviewers simply don’t use either of your names because they fear that they will get them wrong. Of course, it’s a mistake to assume that the candidate won’t notice this. Another common name avoidance approach is to use only the candidate’s easiest name to pronounce strictly. These noticeably unusual practices will likely cause many diverse candidates to question whether they want to work for this company. 
  • #8 – Asking the candidate to phonetically spell their name – although this approach might seem innocent enough. Unfortunately, asking the candidate to spell their name phonetically lets them know that you haven’t taken the time to find out something as personal as this in advance. In addition, they may see this request as an indication that the candidate is so different that they will never fit in.
  • #9 – Nervously stuttering with their name – when their unique name is either stuttered or mutilated by an employee. It makes it obvious to a diverse candidate that your firm is not experienced in dealing with diverse employees. And that the candidate and other people in their diverse group will not be welcomed and comfortable if they accept a job here. This feeling will likely cause them to tell their diverse colleagues about this issue.
  • #10 (the least damaging of all major errors) – Having only a few employees getting it wrong – even though most employees that they met/interviewed with actually get their name close. However, even one case where they got it seriously wrong may be enough to poison your attitude toward this employer.

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And Finally, Take These Action Steps To Improve Your Overall Name Pronunciation Process 

In addition to using the very best name capture tools and avoiding all major process errors. You should also consider applying these 4 high-impact actions.

  • Realize that using phonetic spellings is almost always problematic – the exclusive use of phonetic spelling can frequently lead to unreliable pronunciation results. Because even when the candidate or the person knows the real pronunciation. Unfortunately, many will write the phonetic version inaccurately. And those unfamiliar with phonetic spelling may still end up pronouncing the name wrong. So it is a best practice whenever your employee hears the actual name pronunciation for them to immediately phonetically write it out. But then they must repeat their pronunciation to the source using only the phonetic description. This will help to minimize any subsequent conversion errors because the phonetic write-up wasn’t clear and tested. 
  • Send everyone an audio or video file – the best way to get everyone to pronounce the candidate’s name correctly consistently. It is to send everyone who they will talk to or meet a short one-minute audio file where they pronounce their own name. A one-minute video file where they introduce themselves and pronounce their own name is even better.
  • Mention it when you have other employees with their last name – if you are a large company, you can immediately make diverse candidates feel welcomed. By mentioning that “we have __ other employees with the same last name as you.” 
  • Develop metrics covering name pronunciation – identify the scope of the problem by periodically surveying at least a sample of past diverse applicants and candidates. To determine how often that they perceived that their name was mispronounced or handled incorrectly.

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Final Thoughts

If your company, like most other companies outside of Amazon, are suffering from a shortage of diverse candidates and new hires. You simply can’t ignore or postpone the fixing of any major discriminatory hiring practices. Even “off the radar” ones like the mispronunciation of names. So in my view, smart recruiting leaders must realize that they must immediately place a special emphasis on minimizing the as many stealth diversity killers that most firms have simply ignored in the past. And fortunately, because I am a thought leader in identifying and eliminating diversity killers. If you’re interested, you can learn what we have written about eight additional stealth diversity killers by clicking here

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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