NDERITU: A surname by any other definition, will still get you judged

Wednesday October 2 2019

To end surname bias in recruitment practice,

To end surname bias in recruitment practice, the UK made the decision to promote “name blind resumes”—which means candidates’ names do not appear on resumes. PHOTO | TEA 

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I carried out a random survey among 10 of my friends and six of them said they routinely check out the headlines of newspaper articles, then the writers’ name before reading the content.

The surname, in Kenya it seems, remains the cause of suspicion rather than an opportunity for inclusion.

It is not just those reading newspapers. Some years ago, on the invitation of Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to the US, I was privileged to meet and speak with Kenyans in the US on our state of national cohesion and by extension, among them in the US.

As I left, a Kenyan in the room began a conversation with a Ghanaian friend I was with, based on the assumption that he was Kenyan too.

“Jambo.” he said.

“Jambo.” The Ghanaian responded.


“What is your name?” the gentleman asked the Ghanaian. “My name is Ben.” The Ghanaian answered.

“No, I mean, what is your name?” “Ben.” he repeated, “My name is Ben.”

Clearly exasperated, the Kenyan, his voice rising, asked, “Ben, aren’t you a true Kenyan? Is Ben your name?”

“Yes.” Ben said firmly, “I am Ben; Ben for Benjamin.”

What kind of Kenyan was this Ben, who did not understand the importance of a surname? The surname boxed a Kenyan into an ethnic community, where he could be judged.

What kind of conversation could you have with a man when you did not know his surname, and therefore could not tell his political and, presumably, other sensibilities?

Homophily, a preference for people with whom you have something similar is common, and not just among Kenyans. Identifying people to easily judge on especially political, cultural and religious sensibilities happens in many places.

According to the Korean National Statistical office, all traditional, ethnic Koreans possess one of 278 surnames. Of these 278, approximately 45 per cent of the population has either the Kim, Lee or Park surname.

The journal of organisational culture, communications and conflict says a sense of familiar responsibility promoted by Confucianism has seen blood related members bound to support and take care of each other. The manifestation of this is seen in cases of nepotism or preferential hiring practices based on surnames.

When researchers from the Paris School of Economics and Stanford University sent out fake resumes to apply for real jobs in Paris, The French sounding names received 70 per cent callbacks than other names.

Researchers at Northwestern University and Harvard Universities established bias in hiring practices based on names has remained unchanged for decades with people with Muslim or African American names least likely to be invited for job interviews.

In the UK, a BBC test found a job seeker with an English sounding name was offered three times the number of interviews than one with a Muslim name.

To end surname bias in recruitment practice, the UK made the decision to promote “name blind resumes”—which means candidates’ names do not appear on resumes.

It has become common to find organisations having as a core value, respect for diversity. The difference diverse staff bring on board is reflected by the added value of their skills, knowledge and networks.

Despite this well sounding phrases discrimination based on surnames appears to be a worldwide systemic aspect of the labour market and recruiters need to be extremely conscious of their unconscious bias.

Employers need to consistently invest in educating recruiters on discriminatory behaviour, particularly on changing subconscious bias patterns.

Organisations with strong reputations for valuing and respecting differences often do better than the competition in retaining talented individuals as employees. When employees use their differences to generate ideas and express them, the organisation grows.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]