By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/23/2009 7:49:28 AM ET 2009-11-23T12:49:28

Throughout Shuki Khalili’s career, he suspected his name might be holding him back. When he worked for a Wall Street headhunter, he felt potential clients would blow him off when they heard his name. When he started his own business selling greeting cards, phones sales were initially a bust at first.

“I tried using an American name, ‘Andrew Warner,’ and suddenly I could at least engage them in conversation and sell them some ads so I could build my business,” he said. He now goes by Andrew Warner and runs a successful entrepreneurial resource site called Mixergy.com in Santa Monica, Calif.

Like it or not, your name can make a difference in how seriously you are taken at work and whether you even get your foot in the door for the interview.

One study by researchers at MIT and the University of Chicago found that job applicants with names that sounded African-American got short shrift when it came to the hiring process. The researchers sent out 5,000 fake resumes, and it turned out that resumes with names such as Tyrone and Tamika were less likely to get calls from prospective employers than their Anglo-sounding counterparts, and qualifications seemed to have little impact.

For Larry Whitten, owner of the Whitten Hotel in Taos, N.M., names mattered so much that he ordered a group of Hispanic employees change their names to sound more Anglo Saxon . For example, changing Martin (pronounced Mar-TEEN) to plain-old Martin or Marco to Mark.

At the Taos hotel, Whitten explained, when some workers answered the phones and said their names, customers didn’t understand what they were saying. For example, Mar-TEEN, sounded like “my thing,” he said.

“I am not a racist,” said Whitten, who fired several employees for insubordination. What motivated his decisions, he stressed, was the bottom line.

“I’m not accustomed to Spanish lingo. A lot of people have the same thing,” he said. “If a name is going to prevent me from getting a guest because they hang up or can’t understand it or they get frustrated, I have to do something about it.”

He said he had operated a hotel in Oklahoma where 99 percent of his employees were African American and did a similar thing. “I changed five or six names without any trouble there,” he said. “Latasha to Tasha, to make it easy.”

What’s in a name
Indeed, it’s what people don’t know or understand that is sometimes at the heart of prejudice. And catering to such ignorance is no excuse for workplace discrimination, experts stressed.

“Customer preferences and co-worker preferences are never something that can justify discrimination,” said Ernest Haffner, senior attorney adviser at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Changing somebody’s name is something that could be viewed as intentionally discriminatory or not but it still could have a disparate impact” on a certain group of workers, said Haffner, who would not comment directly on the New Mexico hotel workers’ situation because he did not know the details. “If the employer feels people are uncomfortable with workers that have foreign-sounding names, then the employer is adopting the biases of the customers or co-workers.”

If, however, the employer has some legitimate business reason for asking a worker to change his or her name, he said, and is not only singling out one group, then that may be a different story.

Full disclosure here: My own family, Greek immigrants from Istanbul, has grappled with the name issue for years.

My grandfather, whose first name was Soukias, worked in a New York textile factory and was told by his boss when he started: “Your name is now Joe.” Also, my sister, an attorney in Virginia, changed her name to Tahmin from Tahmincioglu because an employer told her to pick a name that sounded more American. And more than one editor has asked me if I used my whole name on a byline.

I chose to keep my last name, but my real first name is Evanthia. I go by Eve professionally.

Issue of perception
Tammy Kabell, a resume consultant, has often seen how names are perceived in her line of work. “I’ve had frank discussions with HR managers and hiring mangers in the corporate world, and they tell me when they see a name that’s ethnic or a black name, they perceive that person as having low education or coming from a lower socioeconomic class,” she said.

And it’s only gotten worse during the recession, she added. “At 10 percent unemployment, they’re going through a lot of resumes, so they can be selective of who they call.”

Following Sept. 11, 2001, she noticed a particular bias against Muslim/Arab sounding names. One particular client who was an electrical engineer was from Pakistan and named Raheem. “He looked for a year and a half and couldn’t get anything,” she explained, adding that he could only find a job as a supervisor of a cleaning staff at a Miami hotel.

So how do you know if your name is holding you back?

One site, BehindTheName.com, actually provides feedback from readers on how a host of names from all different cultures and ethic groups are perceived.

John, for example, was seen by those polled as largely “wholesome,” while Juan was rated higher when it came to being “devious.” And as far as the “strange” rating on the two names — 44 percent thought John was strange, while nearly 70 percent thought Juan was strange.

Bruce Lansky, the author of “100,000 Plus Baby Names,” is convinced a name could potentially make or break a child’s future career.

“Most people in America are not bigoted, but they do have comfort zones,” he said. “If you’re picking a name for your child, it’s reasonable to select a name that reflects your ethnicity but which will strike most people as ‘familiar’ or ‘mainstream’ rather than ‘foreign’ or ‘off-putting.’”

In search of the mainstream
HR managers, he said, tend to seek out applicants they feel are “familiar” or “mainstream.” “A foreign-sounding or highly ethnic-sounding name will have people wondering if they spoke English in the household, or if they’ll be able to get along and mix with Americans.”

He suggested finding names that are part of your culture or ethnicity but are not too overt. For example, he said, “if you’re Irish, you could choose Kevin or Shawn, instead of Dermott or Shamus.”

Or use an Anglo-sounding name as the middle name, he noted, giving a child a choice on what to use when they get older. “It can be Abdullah and his middle name can be Henry,” he said.

Dennis W. Montoya, the lawyer representing eight of the fired employees from Whitten’s Taos hotel, doesn’t buy the whole change-your-name-to-conform argument.

“At one point in time, it was society’s preference not to allow African Americans to sit at the front of the bus,” he pointed out. “If we continued to cater to societal preferences, we’d still be living in those days.”

The fired workers, Montoya said, objected to being told they had to change their Hispanic given names because of a “value judgment imposed by the employer.”

Montoya said the EEOC is investigating the Whitten case. An EEOC official said the agency is “prohibited by law from confirming or denying any investigations.”

The hope is that the situation can be resolved through mediation, Montoya said. “If this is not resolved through negotiations, then the case will proceed to a trial by jury,” he added.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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