names in the personnel search Which names tend to be rated negatively – and why noble titles help
Corporations want more diversity in their workforce. The names of applicants play a key role in recruiting. Which psychological effects strike – and how HR managers are blinded by noble titles.
WirtschaftsWoche: Mr. Kanning, there has been a lot of discussion about discrimination at work for a number of years. Does that have an effect – are HR managers less superficial than they were ten years ago?
Uwe Kanning: I would rather look back 20 to 30 years. The development is progressing very slowly. My impression is that there are more well-qualified people in HR departments today who are familiar with research results on personnel selection. They know that there are errors of judgement. But that is by no means the norm.
Does this mean that applicants must continue to expect to encounter prejudice?
The problem is that many companies have people working in human resources who are not specifically trained for diagnostic tasks. Or: They are well qualified, but don’t make the important decisions. Companies still fall far short of their potential here.
Research shows: One criterion that leads to errors in judgment are names. Who benefits and who doesn’t?
Names that appear frequently are rated more positively: Julia Müller, Klaus Meier – in comparison to names that are less common, such as Brunhild, who also has the letters CZY in her family name – also because it is harder to read, you get stuck. Our colleagues in the USA in particular are doing a lot of research on this. The trend in this country should be similar.
Prof. Dr. Uwe P. Kanning is a graduate psychologist and professor for business psychology at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences. He is the author of numerous books and specialist articles, in particular on the topics of personnel diagnostics and questionable methods of personnel work. Since 2017 operator of the YouTube channel “15 Minutes Business Psychology”.
Complicated names are therefore a disadvantage. What about names that indicate a migration background?
First of all, there is information in the name. It can mean different things. For example, as you say, a migration background. We know from research – also from Germany – that such names are rated more negatively than those where this is not the case. We also know that accents and dialects play a role. High German is rated more positively than a regional coloring of the language, although there are also differences. For example, Bavarian and Saxon differ significantly from each other. The former is generally perceived more positively, while Saxon is more of a disadvantage, although of course it depends on where you are in the region. Anyone who applies in Leipzig or Dresden certainly has no disadvantages with a Saxon dialect.
Why is that?
This can be partly explained by the similarity-attractiveness effect. Accordingly, I evaluate people more positively who are similar to me, for example in language or in relation to their social background. The preference for simple names can also explain the mere exposure effect. It says fundamentally: if something is familiar and familiar, I automatically experience it in a rather positive way. If something is strange and unusual, then there is more of a tendency to evaluate it negatively.
That actually contradicts one of your own research results, doesn’t it? You did research on aristocratic titles and found out that HR managers rate a Viktoria von Löwenstein more positively than a Claudia Müller in certain characteristics.
That’s correct. From this you can see that this effect “smoothness equals positive” does not always apply. With a name like Viktoria von Löwenstein, a social stereotype with a positive connotation pops up in people’s minds. What we think we know about the nobility, we learn from gossip newspapers or television, for example about the British royal family. Most of the information here is rather transfigured, glamorous, stylish. That is why we associate aristocracy primarily with aesthetics, but also with power and influence. And then when a person goes by that name, we, as outsiders, fall back on that stereotype. In our study, we found that recruiters are more likely to hire applicants with a title than those without.
What qualities do we ascribe to Viktoria von Löwenstein?
Above all, assertiveness and leadership. Presumably, their ancestors held influential positions, owned estates, and made important decisions. Hundreds of years later, we also attribute this to the descendants. This historical association is of course wrong, but understandable. However, they did not fare any better when it came to characteristics such as teamwork.
Conversely, are there also well-known names that we tend to associate negatively? Because the famous ancestors are now viewed much more critically in the discussion. I’m thinking of one by Bismarck.
It would be exciting to investigate that. There are no studies on this. I personally would rather think of other names. To see Bismarck negatively requires a great deal of historical knowledge on the part of the personnel managers. For example, there were many nobles in the resistance during National Socialism, but there were also supporters. They also have descendants who could be evaluated very differently. In the case of Bismarck, I personally believe that the name differs in a positive way, because historically it has not yet been viewed so critically.
Do the advantages that come from the noble name extend through the professional career?
There are hardly any studies on this either. However, there is a study from sociology that examined about ten years ago what percentage of board members in German companies have an aristocratic title: Eight percent. In comparison: In the total population it is only one percent. So I can well imagine that these advantages will pull through. Of course, that depends on the job: a count who works as a painter and varnisher is unlikely to experience the advantages that a management consultant enjoys. The effect is likely to be greater for her: she is credited with an educated family home, good manners, seriousness, assertiveness – all qualities that are advantageous in her professional field.
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Do you explain that there are people who buy such certificates of nobility?
Do you know Frédéric Prince of Anhalt?
That’s a bit of a weird character. He wandered around the German talk shows for a while. And he once said quite frankly: he uses the title for his success. He went to the USA with it, where the title “Prince” immediately makes you think of the Queen. The example is extreme, the principle is the same: use the positive attributions of the aristocratic title for your own success.
Back to personnel selection. While certain individuals experience benefits, many also experience the downside of various psychological effects. What is the solution?
I think companies need to be aware of the economic dimension of wrong decisions. Ethical arguments for equal treatment are one thing. However, companies must also have a profound interest in hiring the best candidates. And vice versa not to give jobs to people who are not very suitable. I could imagine that companies that have made a serious mistake in the past – I immediately think of Middelhoff and Karstadt – are now thinking more critically.
Should applications also be anonymous in Germany?
There is a lot to be said for anonymous applications. Many HR professionals say they need a name, photo, and cover letter to feel good about themselves. While research says: no, none of this information will get you anywhere, on the contrary, it is a source of unconscious wrong decisions. Incidentally, experienced people make the same mistakes as laypeople, as we have been able to show in several studies. Experience alone does not protect against errors in judgement. Anonymized application documents are only a start.
We also have the problem that the classic job interview is largely based on the gut feeling of the decision-maker. True to the motto: Let’s talk for three quarters of an hour and then you have a good feeling whether it fits or not. And the higher the hierarchical level at which an appointment takes place, the poorer the diagnostic quality of the procedures. Clear criteria for the selection are important. In this way, errors in judgment are not reduced to zero, but they are significantly reduced. Of course, it would be just as wrong to automatically dismiss holders of aristocratic titles as impostors. There has to be a fair chance for everyone. Decision-makers should be guided by actual suitability and not by their gut feeling.
Transparency note: The interview was conducted in August 2022 and was first published. We are showing it again due to the high reader interest.