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How a Name Can Help or...

How a Name Can Help or Hurt a Career: What’s in a Name?

It’s the first thing someone sees on your resume or on your business card.  

Your name is an important part of the first impression you make in the professional world whether applying for a job, meeting a new client, or vying for a promotion. But does your name make you sound intelligent and strong—or ditzy and feeble?

“The image of a name is really important and the fact is you already have an image in your head for many names,” says Bruce Lansky, who has been researching names for more than thirty years and has written nine books on baby names.

The importance of your name also depends on the situation, according to experts, who say names matter more if you are just sending in a resume than if you are sitting down for an interview. In an interview, the first impression will be based on more information including appearance, conversational skills, etc.

Race—and racism—are still factors when it comes to names on resumes. Psychological studies have shown that resumes with African-American-sounding names often get fewer calls than those with more traditional sounding names when the candidates are equally qualified, say name experts.

“When a company gets resumes from someone named Yvonne and someone named Ebonisha, they might say, ‘Let’s call Yvonne,’” Lansky said.

Women also face the unpleasant reality of prejudice and stereotypes. For women in the workplace, a name carries even more significance—and potential for problems. Lanksy suggests avoiding nicknames that end in “y,” “ie,” or “i.” These ee-sounding names first proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s with common choices like Suzy and Judy, but are still popular in modern names like Haley and Kylie.

“They had sort of a cute, cheerleader, zippy image that was nice and warm, but not necessarily intelligent or competent,” Lansky says.

Nancy Collamer, a career coach and the founder of, agrees that women should avoid using cutesy-sounding nicknames like Patsy in favor of full names like Patricia.

“Candy, Muffy, or any of those names that lack the sense of seriousness might cause you a little bit of difficulty,” Collamer says.

Men might also benefit from that advice.

“I think a more formal name sometimes give people more of a cache,” said Douglas Campbell III, an executive coach based in Darien, Connecticut. He cites examples of men who switched from Dick to Richard or Dave to David to enhance their professional image.

Aside from names that are diminutive-sounding or too cute, women can also run the risk of having a name that sounds too sexy.

“Women have this double whammy in that there is a Catch 22 for women about names and physical attractiveness,” says Cleveland Evans, a psychology professor at Bellevue University and a past president of the American Name Society. “In some cases, a name that sounds really sexy to a guy—like Haley or Britney—may actually end up being a slight detriment to the woman who is trying to be taken seriously for an executive position.”

Psychological research shows that some men say they are less likely to hire a woman whom they find very attractive and seductive, Evans said.

“If you’re going to be an executive in an accounting firm, it might be better to be named something like Ethel that goes along with the stereotype of a serious, smart, and competent woman,” says Evans, the author of The Great Big Book of Baby Names.

Raegan Scott, a television news anchor in Anchorage, Alaska, believes that having a strong and unique name is a professional advantage. She says she is taken more seriously because of her name.

“A great, unique, strong name can give you unspoken confidence,” Scott said.

But she didn’t always enjoy her name.

“As a child, I hated it,” she recalls. “I was constantly called ‘Ronald Reagan’ on the playground, and I used to come home in tears.”

From the playground to the office, having an uncommon name has both advantages and disadvantages.

“If you have an unusual name on your resume, the first question is ‘Will this person fit in?’” Lanksy says. “An unusual name suggests you are different.” 

Some psychological studies have suggested that people with common names may find that success comes easier than it does for those with odd names. One study found that teachers actually gave higher grades to essays written by children with popular names, such as David and Lisa. The same essays got lower marks from the teachers when they had names like Elmer and Bertha on them.

Another study published last year in the journal Psychological Science suggested something entirely different: that academic success is actually related to the letter your name begins with. It found that students whose names begin with letters associated with lower academic performance, such as C and D, earn lower grade point averages than students whose names begin with A and B.

The study also found that students whose names begin with C and D attend lower-ranked law schools than those with names beginning with A and B.

So, are you doomed to a life of failure if you have an unusual name that begins with—gasp—a D? Of course not, say name experts. Your personality can also determine how your name is perceived, says Evans.

“In certain occupations having a funny-sounding name that is memorable can be very useful,” Evans said. “For example, if you’re an extroverted person and you work in sales, you could introduce yourself with your odd name and a smile and you can use it as a conversation piece.”

The same can be true of names with unusual spellings. Llezlie L. Green, a civil rights attorney in Washington, DC, says people often ask her about her name and it sometimes can be an icebreaker. When she was interviewing for a clerkship with a judge, the first question he asked was about her name.

Green, who is getting married in May, says she recently discovered another unexpected professional advantage to her unusually spelled name. It will help smooth the transition when she adds on her husband’s last name to her business cards and email signature.

“I don’t worry so much about people being able to find me or figure out who I am once I get married because what are they going to do—think that I’m some other Llezlie with two l’s?” she says. “I’m the only Llezlie who comes up on Google.”

But what about ethnic-sounding names that are especially difficult to spell and pronounce? How would you pronounce Digvijai or Sokheng if you picked up the phone to call them for a job interview?

Campbell says names that sound ethnic can be appealing to large companies seeking to create a diverse employee base.

“In the corporate world, you see every different name and every ethnicity—diversity is a really big asset,” Campbell said. “You’re going to see a lot of more of that.”

But those tricky names can also be a bit of a stumbling block, says Collamer, who previously worked as a human resources director.

“I can remember sometimes getting resumes and being impressed with their backgrounds, but you go to pick up the phone and you don’t know how to pronounce their name and it’s very awkward,” Collamer recalls. “I don’t think it’s ever a deal-breaker, but it creates sort of an uncomfortable situation initially.”

Collamer suggests signing your cover letter with a nickname if you have one to ease the initial phone call.

Of course, having an ethnic name in corporate America also requires some patience with people who constantly mispronounce it. Urvaksh Karkaria, a journalist working in Atlanta who hails from Mumbai, India, deals with this on a daily basis.

“Nine out of ten times they get it wrong,” he said. “People usually ask where I’m from and then they ask, “‘How do you say it again?’”

Sometimes, he says, it can be an advantage.

“It’s an uncommon name, so people often remember part of it or at least they remember that I’m the guy with the weird name,” he said. “If someone says they spoke to Bob there could be could be five different Bobs, but hopefully there is only one Urvaksh.”