Learn Some Economics: Can Your Name Affect Your Chances at a Job in Canada?

We are all well aware of the issues relating to skilled immigrants’ hardships in finding suitable employment in Canada.  This is true despite the fact that 50% of immigrants enter the country through the point system, a program developed to let in immigrants who are sufficiently skilled to be able to integrate quickly in the Canadian labour market.  Canada has one of the highest per capita immigration rates in the world.  The average immigrant who enters via point system is more skilled than the average Canadian.  Why aren’t employers taking advantage of this?  Reasons given for the barriers faced by immigrants in our labour market range from employers’ reluctance to hire candidates with foreign education or work experience to perceived cultural and language differences.  But what about straight up discrimination?

UofT economist Philip Oreopoulos conducted a field study that looked at the magnitude by which skilled immigrants struggle in the Canadian labour market by studying job application call-back rates (ie. interview request rates).  His controversial findings were picked up by the media in 2009.   The study sheds some much-needed light on the interviewing decisions made by firms located in Toronto, which is relevant to many of our readers who are are immigrants or descendants thereof.

Between April and November 2008, Oreopoulos and his team sent out 6,000 computer-generated resumes in response to online job postings in the Greater Toronto Area.  Oreopoulos didn’t target a specific industry but instead responded to postings across twenty.  Resumes were constructed to represent either recent immigrants from China, India, Pakistan and Britain or non-immigrant Canadians with or without foreign-sounding names.  The resumes were randomly put together based on three main aspects: Anglo or foreign-sounding name, Canadian or foreign work experience and Canadian or foreign undergraduate education.  Extracurricular activities, additional languages spoken and certificates obtained were also randomized across the 6,000 resumes.  To maintain consistency throughout the resumes, Oreopoulos always included 4-6 years’ work experience consisting of exactly three jobs.  In total, Oreopoulos created five types of resumes in order to be able to pinpoint and measure what drives the difference in interview request rates.

  • Type 0: Anglo-sounding name, Canadian education, Canadian experience (surnames included Smith, Brown, Wilson, Martin and Johnson)
  • Type 1: Foreign-sounding name, Canadian education, Canadian experience
  • Type 2: Foreign-sounding name, foreign education, Canadian experience
  • Type 3: Foreign-sounding name, foreign education, some foreign experience
  • Type 4: Foreign-sounding name, foreign education, only foreign experience

For each job posting selected, an employer was sent four resumes.  Email applications not only contained differing resumes, but tailored cover letters, subject lines, document names, etc. so as not to raise suspicion among the employers.  Keep in mind that for work experience, Oreopoulos used international companies whenever possible.

Results: Based on what we know about this topic, we would expect to see a lower call-back rate for resumes with foreign names, foreign education and foreign experience than for all-Canadian resumes.  And we do.  All-Canadian resumes (Type 0) received interview requests 15.8% of the time and were 80% more likely to receive one than Type 3 candidates, who received interview requests 8.8% of the time.  The difference skyrockets to 200% when comparing Type 0 candidates with Type 4 candidates, who received interview requests 5.2% of the time.  These findings underscore how much emphasis employers place on Canadian work experience.  It is no wonder then that highly-skilled immigrants find themselves in undesirable situations; they are rarely even selected for interviews by local employers despite their comparable education and experience.

How about if we compare all-Canadian Type 0 candidates with Type 1 candidates, who differ only in name (Indian, Pakistani, Chinese)?  Care to wager a guess?  Their resumes, on average, were virtually identical so call-back rates should have been similar right?  Nope.  The difference is staggering.  The interview request rate for all-Canadian candidates (15.8%) was 40% higher than for Type 1 candidates, whose rate was 11.3%.  Think of it this way: two candidates apply for a job.  Each obtained a B.Sc. from University of Toronto and each has 4-6 years of comparable Canadian work experience.  One is named Mathew Johnson while the other is named Yong Zhang.  Based on his name alone, Mathew Johnson is 40% more likely to receive a call back.  In his particular study, Oreopoulos found that a candidate’s name mattered considerably more for interview requests than education beyond a bachelor’s, knowledge of additional languages and extracurricular activities.  So, if you’re thinking of applying to do your Masters as a way of getting ahead in your career, you may find it easier and less timely to change your name to Allison Brown instead.

Other notable findings highlighted in the study include:

  • A university degree obtained in Canada vs. abroad did not matter for a foreign-named candidate with Canadian work experience
  • Work experience acquired nationally vs. abroad mattered: some foreign work experience was associated with a 2.6 percentage point drop in call backs and strictly foreign work experience was associated with a 6.2 percentage point drop for candidates with foreign-sounding names and foreign education
  • Interview requests for British candidates were no different than those for all-Canadian candidates

Oreopoulos also explored the call-back rates associated with English-Chinese names (Anglo first names and Chinese last names) to represent second-generation immigrants and found that name discrimination persisted.   Type 1 resumes with English-Chinese names had interview request rates that were not statistically different from those associated with traditional Chinese names.

How can outright name discrimation occur in a “welcoming” country such as Canada?  We rely on immigrants to bring skills, knowledge and culture to enrich our cities and yet, we treat them unfairly.  Shame.  According to Oreopoulos, it only takes a split second for an employer to subconsciously make a discriminatory decision when viewing resumes.  It’d be interesting to see how candidates with European (non-British), African or South American-sounding names in Canada would fare in a similar study.

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5 Comments on “Learn Some Economics: Can Your Name Affect Your Chances at a Job in Canada?”

  1. atomically says:

    S I loved this post. As a Canadian with a foreign name (European but at times confused for African!), foreign education and foreign experience, you wouldn’t believe the number of times it’s been suggested for me to change my name to sound more “North American”. There is also often a sigh of relief when interviewers hear that I speak English without an accent (even though I specify on my resume that I’m a native English speaker). It’s possible that this type of discrimination stems fron the fear of the unknown (or mispronouncing someone’s name!) but it is surprising considering the ethnic makeup of this country, as well as the ranking of North American schools vs European or Asian schools on a global scale. I feel these candidates’ pain!

  2. Heather says:

    Interesting post! It would be interesting to delve into the cognitive processes going on here, and whether it’s a conscious decision (eg. “they probably don’t speak English well enough, so I won’t call them”) or a subconscious one, where a split-second hesitation gets the resume tossed in the “no” pile for a reason the HR person can’t or doesn’t want to examine further. It would also be interesting to examine the backgrounds of those making the hiring decisions–does this effect persist if the person reading the resume is foriegn-born or educated, or just has a foreign-sounding name? There are so many possibilities for a follow-up study here…

    • Sandra says:

      Your suggestions for follow-up studies sound interesting, Heather. Not sure how to go about answering your first question but an economist with the right data could definitely study the likelihood that a reviewer rejects a resume with a foreign name conditional on his/her own background.

      • Heather says:

        Agreed, it would be difficult to create a study on my first suggestion…it’s just my psych background popping up! I would be very interested to see the data analyzed based on the reviewer’s background, though!

  3. Mohamed says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the results of this study. I graduated from an an Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania with a Fulbright Scholarship. Then I decided to come to Canada as a permanent resident to launch my career. I have to say that it’s been pretty disappointing for me as i have applied for so many positions in my field and level of education and can’t even get an interview. I have been struggling to get a job in my field of studies for almost 5 years now. The only permanent jobs i have had so far are in customer service probably because of my bilingualism in French and English. I have even tried to look for unpaid internships in my field of studies (Public Administration & Finance), I couldn’t find any . Given that i really want to pursue a career in my chosen field, it looks like the only option left for me is to go back home or look for a position abroad. It’s pretty depressing; I feel like i have wasted 5 years of my career life. Quite frankly, i would have preferred that they refuse my PR application. That way, I would have sought a different path.


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