Updated: Jun 12
What’s in a name?
In truth? For many of us, everything.
Our parents gift us with our names at birth, but as we journey through life many of us adopt nicknames or choose to use shortened versions of our names. Richard,
for example, becomes Rich or Rick, or maybe they go by something like “Dozer” because of their size or occupation.
The name someone introduces themselves as is their preferred name. It’s the one that they identify with and feel best represents who they are as a person. There are any number of reasons someone may prefer a name other than the one gifted to them at birth and they are under no obligation to share those reasons with you or anyone else.
That’s Not His Name
I’d like to share a story that illustrates the importance of using someone’s preferred name.
*The names of the two employees have been changed to protect their identities.
Michael Thomas Foster was a Service Technician with a regular route and many long-term customers. He did not use his first name and always introduced himself as Tom. All of his friends, customers, and co-workers knew him as Tom and most had no idea that it was middle name and not his first. Even his family called him Tom.
His office hired Amy Souder as their new Administrative Support Specialist. It was her responsibility to schedule customer call in services and process service tickets for disbursement of production pay. Amy’s responsibilities gave her access to Tom’s full name and she decided that, even though he had introduced himself to her as Tom and no one else called him Michael, she would refer to him as Michael rather than Tom.
Tom tried to explain to Amy that there were personal reasons he did not use his first name, but because he wouldn’t share the reason why, she refused to call him Tom. Her refusal had several consequences.
The first should have been obvious to her. Amy’s insistence on referring to Tom as Michael caused confusion with his customers. They only knew him as Tom. As a result, many of his customers became concerned that he might have left the company. This led to conversations where Tom had to reassure his customers that he was still going to be their Service Technician. But, beyond the need to constantly reassure his customers, these conversations were very uncomfortable for him because the use of his first name triggered negative emotional reactions.
Those negative emotional reactions were the second, and the most damaging, consequence of Amy’s refusal to use Tom’s preferred name.
Tom did his best to keep his emotional distress from showing. But the strain was having an increasingly negative impact on him. He began drinking excessively after getting off from work and the hangovers negatively impacted his job performance. His mood and attitude at work deteriorated until he could no longer control his emotions.
The confrontation between Tom and Amy was inevitable. It was also loud and ugly. It was this incident that finally got the management team involved. Both of them ended up being reprimanded.
While Amy did begin using Tom’s preferred name after the confrontation and management intervention, the damage was done. Tom would leave for a new job a few months later. As a result of his departure, a financially significant number of his long-term customers would choose not to renew their service contracts with the company.
Things probably wouldn’t have escalated to the point of confrontation and loss of a valued employee if there had been a Preferred Name Policy in place.
Preferred Name Policies Are About All Of Your Employees
I’m sure many of you were expecting this story to be about a transgender employee because transgender issues are very visible these days, and I could very easily have shared a story that illustrated the importance using a transgender person’s preferred name and the negative impact of not doing so, but having a preferred name policy in place isn’t just about transgender employees. It’s about all of your employees.
Unless an employee legally changes their name, there will be legal and financial documents that will require the use of their birth name, but policy can, and should, be written to allow for email accounts, name tags, badges, business cards, and other name specific needs to reflect a person’s preferred name. A good preferred name policy will not only reduce conversational confusion between co-workers and customers, it can result in improved job performance for those who have negative emotional responses to names that they do not, for whatever reason, use.
If your company does not currently have a preferred name policy in place, our Nuance Culture Consulting™ team can assist your organization in creating one specific to your company’s needs based on its unique structure, organization, information systems, and focus.