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Mispronounced Names: The Hidden Cost of Workplace Bias


A Viral Graduation Gaffe Highlights a Broader Issue

May 20, 2024


Female graduate

A recent incident at Thomas Jefferson University, where nursing students’ names were mispronounced during their graduation ceremony, sparked widespread attention and highlighted a pervasive issue faced by individuals with culturally diverse names, particularly immigrants. The incident, while embarrassing for the institution, served as a catalyst for discussions about the broader implications of name mispronunciation, especially in the workplace.

Key Stats: Why Name Pronunciation Matters in the Workplace

  • 74% of workers struggle with name pronunciation at work
  • 44% of job applicants are less likely to accept a job offer if their names are mispronounced during interviews
  • 59% of Hispanic professionals have experienced mispronunciation during job interviews
  • 16% of employees avoid conversations with colleagues due to fear of mispronouncing their names
  • Companies that prioritize diversity and inclusion have a 35% higher likelihood of outperforming their competitors

A Pervasive Problem with Lasting Impact

The mispronunciation of names is not just an occasional mishap; it’s a widespread issue that affects individuals across various contexts. 74% of workers have struggled with name pronunciation at work, and 44% had their names mispronounced in job interviews. This statistic underscores the significance of names in professional settings and the potential negative impact of mispronunciation on career opportunities.

Research by Katherine DeCelles and colleagues at Harvard Business School further sheds light on the discriminatory practices encountered by minority job applicants, particularly immigrants. Their study found that companies are more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they “whiten” their resumes—removing references to their race or ethnicity, or anglicizing their names.

The parallels between the mispronunciation of names at graduation and the practice of resume whitening are clear: both stem from a lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness. Both reflect a societal expectation for individuals to conform to dominant norms, potentially at the expense of their cultural identity.

Moreover, research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that the chronic mispronunciation of names can be experienced as a microaggression, leading to feelings of marginalization, exclusion, and devaluation. This can have a lasting impact on an individual’s self-esteem, sense of belonging, and overall well-being. Dr. Rita Kohli, a cross-cultural psychologist, aptly notes, “When someone’s name is consistently mispronounced, it’s a microaggression that chips away at their sense of self and belonging.”


Names as Identity: A Legacy of Erasure

Names are not just labels; they are a reflection of one’s heritage, family history, and cultural identity. A study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology reported that over 80% of participants felt a strong emotional connection to their names, viewing them as integral parts of their identity. Mispronouncing a name can feel like a dismissal of that identity, perpetuating a sense of otherness and exclusion.

The link between names and discrimination is deeply rooted in history, particularly in the United States. For example, enslaved people were often given European-sounding names, erasing their original African names, a practice that continued even after emancipation. Additionally, research has shown that students with “ethnic” names may face biases in educational settings, impacting their academic performance and self-esteem.


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The Business Case for Inclusivity: Why it Matters To Your Bottom Line

Beyond the ethical imperative of respecting individual identities, there are tangible business benefits to creating an inclusive workplace where everyone feels seen and heard. Research has consistently shown that diverse and inclusive workplaces are more innovative, have higher employee morale, and outperform their less diverse counterparts.

When employees feel their names are respected, they are more likely to be engaged, productive, and loyal to their company. The NameCoach study found that 16% of respondents admitted to avoiding conversations with colleagues out of fear of mispronouncing their names, and 13% avoided calling on someone in a meeting for the same reason. This avoidance behavior can hinder collaboration, communication, and overall team effectiveness.

Conversely, a workplace that fails to acknowledge and celebrate diversity can suffer from lower morale, decreased productivity, and higher turnover rates. The NIH research further supports this, indicating that a workplace culture that dismisses or minimizes microaggressions can create a toxic environment where employees feel undervalued and unheard.


Implications for HR Professionals: Fostering a Culture of Respect and Inclusion

For HR professionals, the implications of these findings are clear: mispronouncing names is not a trivial matter. It can significantly impact employee morale, engagement, and even retention. It can also perpetuate systemic biases and hinder the creation of a truly diverse and inclusive workplace.

To address this issue, HR professionals should consider the following strategies:

  • Training and Education: Implement comprehensive training programs for all employees, including leadership, on the importance of correct name pronunciation and cultural sensitivity. This should be an ongoing effort, not just a one-time event.
  • Pronunciation Tools: Provide resources such as pronunciation guides, recording features in employee directories, or name pronunciation software to empower individuals to share the correct pronunciation of their names. This makes it easier for others to get it right and demonstrates a commitment to respecting diverse identities.
  • Open Communication: Encourage open communication and create a safe space for employees to correct mispronunciations without fear of judgment or repercussions. Normalize the practice of asking for and offering guidance on pronunciation.
  • Leadership Role Modeling: Encourage leaders to model correct pronunciation and actively promote a culture of respect for diverse names and identities. When leaders prioritize and demonstrate this behavior, it sets a powerful example for the rest of the organization.
  • Recruitment and Onboarding: Pay attention to name pronunciation during the recruitment and onboarding process. Ensure that interviewers and colleagues make a conscious effort to learn and pronounce names correctly from the outset.

By taking proactive measures to address the mispronunciation of names, HR professionals can contribute to a more inclusive, welcoming, and productive workplace where everyone feels valued and respected. This not only benefits individual employees but also contributes to the overall success and well-being of the organization.


Fostering a Culture of Respect: Solutions and Strategies

Navigating the complexities of immigration and workplace inclusion can be challenging. Boundless is uniquely positioned to help companies create a more welcoming and equitable environment for immigrant talent. Our comprehensive services include:

  • Expert Guidance: Experienced immigration attorneys and a streamlined platform ensure seamless processes and compliance with regulations.
  • Tailored Solutions: We develop customized immigration programs and retention strategies to attract and retain top immigrant talent, focusing on competitive compensation, career growth opportunities, and a supportive work environment.
  • Adaptability: We help companies stay ahead of evolving immigration policies, ensuring they can continue to access the global talent pool.

The mispronunciation of names, whether at graduation or in the workplace, is a symptom of a larger societal issue that requires ongoing attention and effort. By recognizing the significance of names, understanding the impact of mispronunciation, and taking proactive steps to promote correct pronunciation, we can create a more inclusive and equitable environment for all. This is not just a matter of courtesy; it’s a step towards dismantling systemic barriers and fostering a society where everyone feels valued and respected.

By partnering with Boundless, HR professionals can tap into our expertise to build a diverse, inclusive, and high-performing workforce that thrives in today’s globalized economy.


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