Stumbling over the pronunciation of an employee's, client's or customer's name can be more than a workplace faux pas. When it occurs repeatedly—especially after the person provides the correct pronunciation—it becomes a microaggression, according to experts, and can lead to people being excluded in the workplace.
A recent NameCoach online survey of 1,060 individuals in the U.S. found that:
- 74 percent said they struggled with correctly pronouncing names at work.
- 22 percent said they didn't introduce another person because they didn't know how to pronounce the person's name.
- 16 percent said they didn't talk to a co-worker because they didn't know how to pronounce the co-worker's name.
- 13 percent said they didn't call on someone in a meeting because they didn't know how to pronounce the person's name.
- 10 percent said they botched a big sales opportunity when they mispronounced a prospect's name.
People react differently to having their name mispronounced: 25 percent of people of color felt discriminated against when this happened, 21 percent of Hispanic people felt unimportant, 19 percent of Asian people felt self-conscious, and 50 percent of white people did not care.
"People's names have so much significance—from their ancestors, families, religions. They have such connection and bearing on their identity," said Rita Kohli, associate professor and equity advisor at the University of California, Riverside. She also serves as coordinator of the University's Ethnic Studies Pathway Program.
She and Daniel Solorzano, professor and inaugural director of the Center for Critical Race Studies in Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the experiences and impact of mispronouncing the names of students of color from kindergarten through high school.
Some had their names changed by teachers and peers, the researchers found; others felt pressure to change their names. The result: Students stopped raising their hands, some didn't attend their own graduations and others became socially withdrawn to avoid associating with their name, Kohli said.
Madhumita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity and impact at New York City-based Carta, recalled in an article for Fast Company how her name became a source of anxiety even when she was a grade-school student.
She was assigned unwanted monikers such as Pita and Mohammed, and over time she gave up trying to tell teachers, supervisors and others how to pronounce her name, she wrote. She ended up shortening her name to Mita.
"The workplace is a different context," Kohli acknowledged, "but there are many implications that are still relevant. And while our study was about students of color, the consequence … cuts across all races/cultures."
What Employers Can Do
Flubbing someone's name seems to happen a lot. Many respondents—276—said they had their name mispronounced in an interview and about the same number said this happened in a customer meeting, NameCoach found.
It also occurs at all levels of an organization—from the receptionist to the HR manager to the chief executive officer. Those who most often flub someone's name are department managers (20 percent), HR managers/chief culture officers (15 percent) and chief executive officers (9 percent), according to the NameCoach survey.
"In spite of all the investment in diversity and inclusion, in subtle but impactful ways we can still make people feel like an 'other,' " NameCoach founder and CEO Praveen Shanbhag, said in a news release about the findings. Respondents included individuals who worked full time or part time and who were self-employed or unemployed.
"Getting someone's name right," he said, "should not be optional."
Not everyone is open to learning correct pronunciations—19 percent of respondents indicated in the NameCoach survey that people with difficult-to-pronounce names should be open to having a nickname, and 9 percent said employers should avoid hiring people with difficult names.
However, there are actions employers can take to demonstrate inclusiveness:
- Use pronunciation tools. Voice of America news agency has an online pronunciation guide. Employers can use a new LinkedIn feature to check a job candidate's profile to learn how to properly pronounce the person's name. Similar tools are available from Chrome, Slack and Google. Slightly more than one-fourth (28 percent) of respondents in NameCoach's survey said they would like more user-friendly tools integrated into workplace platforms such as Zoom and Slack.
- Provide employees with a recorded list of names of everyone in the company.
- Require employees to learn how to properly pronounce names they may find challenging.
"If we want to create ethical work cultures where people feel welcome, included and can be themselves," Kohli said, "we have to respect all aspects of their identities—not just what they can produce for the company. This involves asking how someone says their name, learning and owning your own limitations to pronunciation, [and] not deflecting the burden back to the person whose name you don't yet know how to say."