The Truth About Name Bias

Name bias and name discrimination target an essential part of people’s identity. In the video above, NBC News correspondent Zinhle Essamuah shares how she and two of her colleagues have been impacted, and how employers can take steps to prevent it. Read her lightly edited transcript below.

My name is Zinhle Essamuah. I am an NBC News correspondent and first-generation American raised by parents from Ghana and Uganda. My name “Zinhle” means “the beautiful one” or “the deeds of the Lord are beautiful.”

Sign up for our newsletter! Right Arrow

Jang Han Park is a photojournalist with NBC from South Korea, whose name means “justice and law.”

Violeta Yas is an NBC News meteorologist who was born in Argentina and immigrated to the United States when she was five years old. Her parents, who are musicians, named her after a woman who was a “big inspiration” for them.

Despite our different backgrounds, we shared one common experience: name discrimination.  

“Name discrimination is essentially when someone makes a negative judgment or draws a negative inference based solely on the other person’s name,” said Cynthia Pong, CEO and founder of Embrace Change, a career-changing consulting firm.

There are many forms of name discrimination. As an immigrant student, Yas said she struggled with “feeling different” in school, based on her name. “People couldn’t pronounce it. People didn’t recognize it,” Yas said. “I could always tell in class when the teacher was going to call my name, because she was looking at the sheet, and I could tell she was going to struggle with it a little bit.”

So Yas gave herself a new middle name. “I was a big ‘Saved By the Bell’ fan. I just decided my new name was going to be Kelly,” she said, referring to the head cheerleader character in the NBC show.

Park changed his name after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1997. “My name was used as a racial slur, and I was taunted every day. I started to be ashamed of my name, and I wanted to change my name to more English-sounding names so I could feel more American,” he said.  

Beyond mispronunciation and misspelling, name discrimination can also result in missed opportunities, according to Pong, whose firm specializes in working with women of color. “It could mean getting denied a loan, a mortgage, being denied admission to academia,” Pong said.  

A 2023 study found “ethnic minorities received 57.4% fewer positive responses than applicants with English-sounding names,” despite identical resumes. In 2021, another study found applicants to 108 of the largest employers in the U.S., including Fortune 500 companies, who had “distinctively black names” experienced “systemically illegal discrimination” based on their names.   

“Name discrimination might seem like a small thing, but the impact of it can go through generations,” Pong said.  

To address this disparity, Pong had three suggestions for employers: First, for critical decision points, including hiring or promotions, “consider doing that type of thing without the name or that specific identifying information.” Secondly, train employees — especially leaders — about name discrimination, and thirdly, look at periodical, organization-wide reviews for “people who are getting stuck,” Pong said.

As for those experiencing name bias, Pong said, “Remember, it’s not your fault and you have nothing to be ashamed about. It’s always your prerogative to decide what you want to do.” 

Yas and Park eventually returned to their given names — with a twist. “When I do the news in English, I introduce myself as ‘Violeta Yes.’ And when I do the news in Spanish, I’m Violeta Jazz,’” Yas said. 

Park said he changed to his initials. “Because I meet so many people every day, it is hard to correct everyone every time. So I decided to go with my first name ‘J’ and the last name ‘P.'”

As for me, my mother asked me as a teenager if I wanted to change my name, based on bullying I experienced. I decided to remain, simply, Zinhle. Zinhle Essamuah, all of those names tell the story of me, of my ancestors in the past, but also who I can be and become. 

The Truth About Name Bias

Watch NBCU Academy’s extended interview with NBC News correspondent Zinhle Essamuah and Cynthia Pong, CEO of Embrace Change.