What Past Names Do You Have Share on a Job Application

I’d like to ask about some special scenarios when an employer asks for other names you’ve been known by, and whether or not the applicant needs to provide said name in such cases:

1. If you go by a pseudonym for a particular purpose (e.g. online blog, religious name) that wouldn’t appear on any documents relevant to a background check?
2. The birth name of someone whose name was changed as a child (e.g. adopted or their parents were indecisive about what to name them at birth)?
3. If there are discrimination concerns with providing a former name (e.g. transgender people or those whose original name would be negatively suggestive of their ethnic origins)?

I know of several #1 cases, a #2 where he was given a placeholder name like “Infant” on his original birth certificate until a final first name was chosen, an adopted #2, a transwoman who transitioned as a teen where both #2 and #3 may apply, another transwoman but she didn’t transition until well into adulthood, and someone whose ethnic origins are such that he would never even consider voting for Trump who took on a more “American” name for reasons along those lines.

As a caveat to my answer here, this doesn’t apply to people who are applying for security clearance. They probably not only want to know your childhood nickname but your preferred toenail polish (Cherry-Berry). This answer is for normal jobs.

Companies ask about past names because they want to verify your information and perform an adequate background check. I changed my last name when I got married and both  my undergrad and graduate degrees are under my maiden name. If you call my alma maters to verify degrees for Suzanne Lucas you’ll get a “she never went to school here” response. You’ll have to check under my maiden name. That’s one example. Now, if I had gotten married before graduating from college and didn’t need references from my part time jobs that I had during school, I wouldn’t need to include my maiden name on the previously known as section.

Now, some universities will allow you to change your name, and some won’t. Some will for gender re-assignment, but not for marriage/divorce. You can call your university and ask. They will ask for documentation. I’ve never asked either of my universities, so I honestly don’t know. I  know my undergrad institution has my married name because they send me fundraising stuff but I don’t know if that transferred to my degree. My grad degree used to send me fundraising stuff under my maiden name, but they don’t anymore, so I don’t know if they gave up, or they simply couldn’t find me. (Or they don’t send overseas. You would not believe the number of databases out there that can’t handle foreign addresses.)

Likewise, let’s talk about my brother who goes by his middle name. (Side note: his first name is John, and my mother once wistfully said, “I’ve always liked the name John. I wish I had a son named John.” We had to remind her that she did, indeed, have a son named John.) His diplomas and licenses will be associated with his legal name and he’ll need to indicate that, although he can do that by simply stating his name as J. Middle Name Last Name.

For professional licenses, generally the law requires you to practice under the name on your license, so you’ll want to make sure those match. But, again, if you got your MD as Jane Smith and now you’re John Smith, and even though your license matches, you’ll still want to let a background checker know you used to be Jane Smith so she can track you down.

The idea is, you want people to be able to find you. Now, let’s go down your scenarios.

1. If you go by a pseudonym for a particular purpose (e.g. online blog, religious name) that wouldn’t appear on any documents relevant to a background check?

Not relevant. You can leave that off your resume altogether. Now, if you wanted to use that as an example of your awesome writing skills or something, then you’d want to include it, although I wouldn’t put that on an also known as on the application, I’d indicate it on the resume itself.


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2. The birth name of someone whose name was changed as a child (e.g. adopted or their parents were indecisive about what to name them at birth)?

This is irrelevant. Since they have no job experience as that name and, presumably, their social security number has been changed to the legal name, all is well with the world. No need at all to even bring it up.

3. If there are discrimination concerns with providing a former name (e.g. transgender people or those whose original name would be negatively suggestive of their ethnic origins)?

This will depend on whether or not the name will be needed to verify past employment or education. Just like a maiden name (or a married name and now you’ve divorced) you don’t want a potential employer to call up your past employer and not find you. If she says,  “I’d like to verify that Jane Smith worked here from 2003-2007,” the HR person at your old say, “no such person worked here then,” because you were John Smith when you worked there. Or Jane Smithowski or what have you. Would a company change your name if you asked? Maybe. I’ve never had anyone ask, but that doesn’t mean a company wouldn’t. But, your former managers and co-workers will know you by your original name, and you don’t want to mess that up. Better to state you used to be known as Jane Smith.

Now, there are some people who will be judgmental jerks about everything under the sun, and you can’t avoid that. But, the vast majority couldn’t give a flying fig about a past name–be it for marriage, gender change, or trying to hide national origin. Your resume can contain the name you go by. So, it’s fine to say, “Bill Jones,” and not “William Jones.” On the application, you’ll need to put the necessary information to find you. But, here’s the key: In many companies, the hiring manager never sees the application, and that stuff is strictly for the recruiter to do the background check.

So, don’t worry about name changes. They are super common and no one cares. Okay, some people might care, but you don’t want to work for those people.

Now, if you’re in the witness protection program, ask your handler.

One last note: As far as legal names and professional licensing goes that’s almost exclusively handled under state law, so double check with your state licensing board, don’t just listen to some random person on the internet.


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4 thoughts on “What Past Names Do You Have Share on a Job Application

  1. Thanks for tackling this question, Suzanne! A good (fairly) short answer to all my questions could thus be “If the employer needs to know the other name to properly verify your background then yes, otherwise no”.

    The reason this can be an issue for transgender people is that transphobia is still high among employers (for instance the unemployment rate for transgender people is MUCH higher than that for the general population), and therefore a lot of them would prefer to keep private about their gender change if possible (especially if they physically “pass” well, otherwise that could be a giveaway).

    Remember that a name change due to gender reassignment is different than for example a marriage/divorce name change because in most cases the former name itself gives away why it was changed (e.g. it is pretty obvious why someone changed their name from John Smith to Jane Smith or vice-versa, but a name change from Jane Smith to Jane Doe could be for any number of reasons that are not divulged merely by saying that they were once called that).

    Unfortunately, like you said, for many transgender people who are already into their careers or graduated from school it may not be practically possible to avoid mentioning their original name if the employer wants to run a check on them. Now for someone along the lines of Jazz Jennings or my teen transitioner example (who would’ve lived their whole adult lives under the right gender) then it’d be the equivalent of my adoptee example (no practical need to know).

    I’ve seen several articles on the situation BEFORE the legal name change (dealing with going by a “preferred name”) but not much on minimizing the disclosure of the wrong-gender name AFTER the legal changes have been made.

    One more case where it would probably be imperative to disclose an alternate name regardless of the reason for the change – if you committed a crime under an alias or changed your name afterwards, and like most employers these days they check your criminal history, then you could get into trouble if they end up not seeing your full criminal record due to not providing the names it all was under.

    1. I suppose you’re right on the criminal thing–I hadn’t thought about that.

      And, yeah, there’s no practical way to erase your past name immediately. You can prep the references you recommend, but if a recruiter contacts someone not on your list (which happens!) you could be in trouble.

      1. Re: Criminal history – if you were up front and honest about your bush(es) with the law you should be fine (at least as far as the name issue is concerned – being rejected due to being a felon though is a different story that is beyond the scope of this post), but if you expect to hide your police record via an alias it probably won’t work.

        Re: Changing school records – Along with the other transgender issues surrounding schools, some argue that Title IX and FERPA could be construed to require schools to update a former student’s records when their name is changed due to a gender change (not necessarily for other reasons though). This hasn’t been tested though, so you’re still somewhat at your mercy with asking a school to change your records/get a new diploma. If someone takes this to court, the nice thing is that unlike bathroom/locker room/athletics/etc. issues where other students/parents/competing schools would have standing to side against the trans-student, the issue of student records would purely be a (former) student vs. school policy issue that the public shouldn’t have any standing to challenge.

  2. My issue is that I was falsely accused under my previous name. I still have video evidence proving I was actually the victim and was only arrested because I was male and the motorist assaulting me was female. This generated an arrest article with none of the facts which google takes pleasure in posting on page 1 for people who Google my highly unique first name. It’s not the only reason I changed my name, but one reason. I have some work experience under my old name, but it is less relevant.

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