Marilyn holds an operational leadership role in a midsize accounting firm. A senior partner there calls his assistants and support staff members cutesy nicknames: "Honey," "sweetie," "doll," "babe" and "kiddo" seem intended to make everyone feel relaxed and welcomed in their fast-paced work environment. But the recipients don't always feel the love in such nicknames. How do you address a senior leader who thinks he's being nice by using such terms? And how can Marilyn re-establish a greater sense of professionalism in this senior partner's team without offending him or sounding like she's removing the humanity from the workplace?
"Culture change is always a challenge, especially if the perpetrator truly believes he's acting out of kindness and caring," said Brenda Rushforth, chief human resources officer at Pomona College in Pomona, Calif. When leaders use this kind of language, it could be because the subordinates are the same age as the executive's grandchildren.
Sometimes male workers from the South are visiting northern offices and are trying to make friends. And sometimes women feel they can take the liberty of using nicknames with men to lighten up the mood in the office.
"In reality," Rushforth said, "whoever is using these allegedly harmless, often well-meaning epithets may not realize that they're coming across as condescending and offensive, and that's something you'll want to eliminate from the workplace with senior leadership's support."
Get Backup First
As in all matters cultural, going it alone may not be your best option. If you're not a leader in the company, your message may fall on deaf ears or, worse, be perceived as an attempt to sanitize the workplace or change the culture because of something you've read in an HR book somewhere.
"In such cases, always go one layer above the individual at issue to ensure that you've lined up appropriate support right from the beginning," said Dave Walker, senior vice president of operations and human resources at 1-800 Contacts in the greater Salt Lake City area.
"Executives, like everyone else, will sometimes try to 'split the parents,' so your message … will become fodder for this senior partner's next conversation with the boss—unless you've clarified upfront that the boss is aware and supportive of the discussion you're now having."
What if the individual's boss doesn't want to address the matter?
"While it's always best to partner with the superior in situations like these, sometimes when the topic is personal or stylistically uncomfortable, it's simple enough for you to gain the superior's buy-in to hold the meeting with the subordinate," Walker said.
In short, notwithstanding a firm refusal to engage in the discussion, the superior will likely give you a quiet nod to proceed and handle the matter as you see fit. That "quiet partnership" will be all you need to move forward with your discussion, especially since you're the one willing to do all the heavy lifting.
Structuring the Tough Conversation
In delivering this kind of message to this senior partner (let's call him Fred), Marilyn needs to make sure that she's respectful and not accusatory while informing him of the unintended consequences that his use of terms of affection may have caused. Her conversation with Fred might sound like this:
Marilyn: Fred, I'd like your permission to share something with you that I'll need your help with but that may feel a bit uncomfortable initially. Would that be OK?
Marilyn: You know that in my role, people often share things with me in confidence, and that's because I'm operations, HR, administration and everything in between at any given time. And I enjoy being there for people and appreciate their trust, but sometimes they share information that I rightfully need to disclose because they're uncomfortable addressing it.
I know how much you care about this firm, and I respect your relationships with your team members and your efforts to keep things light, congenial and friendly as you move massive volumes of work across the floor. And I don't want to change that, Fred. That's a good thing, and the house's foundation is fine—it's just a brick or two that may need some realignment.
What I've heard is that some people feel uncomfortable with you referring to them as "kiddo," "honey," "doll" or "sweetie." People sometimes feel that it's condescending to be addressed that way, and they can feel diminished in their roles when that occurs.
In fact, that's probably something that I should keep in mind, too. I get very comfortable with the staff here sometimes because we've all been working together for so long, but I have to be careful not to get overly familiar, so to speak, so I'm pretty much going to raise my own awareness about how I'm coming across at times and try to be a bit more sensitive. Would you be willing to join me in doing the same?
This is clearly a walking-on-eggshells approach, and yes, there may be some initial pushback, but the logic behind Marilyn's reasoning is humane and practical and contains good old common sense.
Most executives would respond well to the solution Marilyn proposed; if that's not the case, then she can reference her conversation with Fred's boss and encourage Fred to speak with his superior.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is vice president of HR at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif. Some of his best-selling books include 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.