Let me paint you a picture. I was waiting to see a client in the foyer of some council offices typical of so many others up and down the country. In came a very irate resident and immediately started to harangue the receptionist who looked very uncomfortable.
“I need to see someone now. Get him down for me.”
“Ok. Do you have an appointment?”
“It’s at 10 but I want to see him now.”
“I can try and call him but its only 9.15. What is the name of the person you want to talk to?”
“I don’t know. Ali something. He’s got some stupid name that I can’t say. Ridiculous. They should all change their names to ones we can say. Just get him down here.”
I am really sorry, but I can’t without a name.”
“I told you its b… impossible to say.”
“Ok. Take a seat and I will see what I can do.”
By this time, several people had witnessed this outburst and they could all see how shaken the receptionist was. The woman continued to mutter away in quite a loud voice about no one taking her seriously, about how useless it was to have a male receptionist and how she wanted to see someone immediately and then proceeded to use a long list of expletives about the council officer with the ‘unpronounceable’ name.
As she came and sat in the seating area where I was, something inside me just exploded. I remembered a time when I was 10, at school and my teacher refusing to call me Lubna as it was a ‘silly’ name so she would call me Louise. I knew that what I was about to do was a bit risky – for me.
“Excuse me” I said
“I think you are being very rude and incredibly unreasonable. The receptionist is trying to help you, you are early for your appointment, you are making no effort to be helpful about who you are here to see, and I find your behaviour and language very offensive”
We both stopped and looked at each other.
“I don’t mean to be offensive” she said, the wind momentarily taken out of her sails, “but he has got a stupid name”.
“Do you have his name written down?” I asked, “show me.”
“Ok so its Harshan Vaidyanathan. It’s a Sri Lankan name. This is how you say it” and I broke it down for her and got her to repeat it. “You see. It’s not so hard with a bit of effort. What is your name?”
“Aah. So, a Celtic name. Not pronounced like its spelt. Now some might consider that a strange name.”
I left that hanging with her with a few seconds. She spoke again.
“I am sorry. I didn’t think and I really did not mean to be offensive”
This story could have ended very differently. I got lucky. But it was a perfect storm of a combination of factors coming together to bring out the worst of her unconscious bias: She was upset by her situation; the receptionist had the audacity to be male and people with unusual names are not worthy of respect. If a name sounds African, Indian, or anything non-Western, research shows that people may make assumptions about that person affecting their treatment.
Black and minority ethnic job applicants have to send, on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts.
Black and minority ethnic job applicants have to send, on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts. This has become such an issue that in 2016 the CBI called for the removal of candidates’ names from job applications to create a more dynamic and diverse workforce. The ‘unconscious’ part means that this bias is happening unintentionally. Someone will hear or see a name and if that name is not immediately familiar to them, they may treat the person differently without even knowing that they are doing it. It is often related to race.
We see UB happening all around us all the time, every day. Next time you see it, call it out, or better still, stop, learn to become more alert, think and pull yourself up when you may also be falling into the trap.
If you would like to discuss this topic further, please contact Lubna Haq at [email protected] or call on 07342960096