What’s in a Name? The Importance of Getting Names Right at Work

Close-up of a "Hello, my name is" name tag on a business person

Have you ever gotten someone’s name wrong at work? You’re not alone. During the 2014 Academy Awards, John Travolta infamously introduced “Adele Dazeem” right before Idina Menzel took the stage to perform “Let It Go.” He later apologized, and she graciously accepted his apology.

Luckily, most of us don’t have to worry about flubbing someone’s name in front of millions of viewers. Even so, it’s still awkward when you mispronounce a colleague’s name—or when a co-worker gets your name wrong.

As someone with an unusual name myself—it’s pronounced bree-tuh, for the record—I’ve navigated many of these conversations. When I got married, I discovered the new challenge of correcting people when they assumed I changed my last name.

We all know it’s important to respect people’s names, but that doesn’t mean we won’t mess up sometimes. These conversations don’t have to be hard, as long as we all make the effort. Let’s learn how to navigate these name conversations in a polite, respectful way.

Why Names Matter

A name is central to someone’s identity. Names can connect us to our family, our ethnicity, our culture, our self-image, and sometimes, even our choices. When you correctly say someone’s name, you respect their identity. In the workplace, taking the time to learn a colleague’s name goes beyond respect—it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

In an inclusive work environment, employees feel like they can bring their full selves to work. That includes their names.

While there’s scant research on the effects of mispronounced names in the workplace, there are studies on how children feel when their teachers mispronounce their names. Overall, the findings indicate that children feel ashamed and isolated when their names are constantly said wrong. Nobody wants to contribute to those bad feelings, which is why it’s so important to get people’s names right.

Common Name Mistakes in the Workplace

We’re only human, prone to error. Here are a few different ways people might mess up names at work.

Mispronouncing an Unusual Name

When you see a new name for the first time, odds are, you won’t know how to say it correctly. Instead of mumbling “Adele Dazeem,” ask for the correct pronunciation.

Creating an Unwanted Nickname

When presented with a hard-to-pronounce name, some people jump to a nickname that they find easier to say. Always ask a new colleague for their preferred name. Don’t give them a nickname unless they first introduce themselves with one. This also applies to names that have commonly used nicknames. Just because names like Bethany and Michael can be shortened doesn’t mean each Bethany and Michael likes to be called Beth or Mike.

Mixing Up Similar Names

Is it Jenny or Jamie, Kristin or Christina? It can be challenging to remember someone’s name when it’s like another name, especially if multiple people at work have similar names. If you mix up a co-worker’s name with someone else’s, apologize, correct yourself, and move on.

Forgetting a Name Change

People change their names for many reasons. If you’re struggling to remember a colleague’s new name, write a note to yourself.

How to Respect Names at Work

We’ve gone over a few ways to avoid or fix common name mistakes in the workplace. Let’s dive into a few more ideas to pronounce names correctly.

Just Ask

It’s okay if you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name correctly. Ask them for the correct pronunciation, and listen carefully to their response. Repeat their name back to them. It’s okay if you need to go back and forth a few times to get it right.

Ask Again

What if you’ve forgotten how to pronounce someone’s name? Ask them again. Admit you’ve forgotten the correct way to say their name, apologize, and ask them for the correct pronunciation. Listen carefully and practice their name a few times.

Ask About a Preferred Name

Many people use their full legal names for written communication, even if they go by something else the rest of the time. When you meet someone in-person for the first time, ask about their preferred name. They might still go by their legal name, or they might offer up a nickname. If their preferred name is different, consider writing it down to help you remember.

Practice Saying Someone’s Name

If you know you have difficulty with names, take time to practice. Write out a phonetic guide. Repeat their name multiple times on your own.

Apologize If You Mess Up

When you mispronounce a co-worker’s name, apologize for it. Practice the correct pronunciation again. Don’t dwell on your mistake or bring it up again constantly. Apologize and do better next time.

Make a Genuine Effort

All of these tips mean nothing if you don’t actually try. You can’t laugh it off and claim “I’m terrible at names!” as an excuse to give up. Even if you are terrible at remembering names or pronouncing new names, you need to make the effort to do better.

How to Respond When People Get Your Name Wrong at Work

When you have a hard-to-pronounce name, you quickly learn when to offer a correction and when to let it go. Professional connections, whether they’re colleagues, clients, or industry leaders, are people who deserve a polite correction. The vast majority of people do want to get your name right, and they’ll even feel embarrassed if you wait too long to correct their mispronunciation.

Here are some tips for navigating these conversations in the workplace. This advice applies anytime someone gets your name wrong, even if it’s not a mispronunciation.

Be Preemptive About Your Name

Make it as easy as possible for people to learn your name. When meeting someone for the first time, clearly enunciate your name. You can also share a little tip for pronouncing your name. For example, I sometimes explain “’bree’ as in ‘brie cheese,’ and ‘ta’ as in ‘ta-da.’”

It’s also helpful to include a pronunciation guide on written materials and online platforms. On LinkedIn, you can even upload an audio recording of the correct pronunciation of your name.

Correct People in Conversation

It can feel awkward to correct someone when they say your name wrong, but it’s still important to do so, especially at work. Remember, people genuinely want to say your name correctly, so you’re helping them by politely offering a correction.

When correcting someone, be direct and polite. Keep your tone lighthearted. If they repeat your name, and it’s still incorrect, say your name again. Share an easy way to remember your name. When I’m talking on the phone with someone who is struggling with my last name, I explain “’long’ as in ‘not short.’”

Remember to be patient. Not everyone is familiar with multiple languages and the different ways to pronounce letter combinations.

Finally, if the person mispronouncing your name has an accent, accept small differences in pronunciation. For example, native English speakers often find it hard to speak tonal languages. As another example, many people who speak English as a first or second language struggle to pronounce the “th” sound, which isn’t present in many other global languages. Recognize when someone with an accent is doing their best to say your name correctly, and graciously accept the variation on your name.

Correct People in Written Form

Names are not only said incorrectly, they’re often spelled incorrectly.

Once again, be preemptive in your introduction or email signature. When emailing someone for the first time, introduce yourself at the beginning of the email. Include your signature at the end. Consider adding a pronunciation guide to your signature.

If someone greets you incorrectly in an email, correct them directly, politely, and succinctly–“Just as an FYI, it’s Brita with just one T.”

Remember that typos and autocorrect happen, so someone might misspell your name more than once. If they are a recurrent offender, continue to correct them.

Pick Your Battles

When I was a kid, I indignantly corrected anyone who called me “bree-duh,” rather than “bree-tuh,” not realizing that many people couldn’t differentiate between the two sounds. I learned to pick my battles.

If someone is making a good-faith effort to say your name correctly, but they just can’t quite get it, you may want to accept “close enough.”

Also, you don’t need to correct everyone. In a workplace setting, yes, you should almost always offer correction because you’ll be interacting with these people again. However, when you’re traveling for work, it’s okay if the flight attendant or bartender gets your name wrong. They’re busy, and you’ll probably never see them again.

What About Nicknames?

Nicknames are common for all sorts of reasons. In families with repeated names, each person often has their own version, like Michael, Mikey, and Mike. Friends can bestow a nickname upon you based on an inside joke. You might choose to use one name socially and another name professionally.

Nicknames should always be a choice. While you might not convince your parents to give up the nickname they’ve called you for years, you should expect your colleagues to respect your name. If someone gives you an unwanted nickname, correct them directly and politely, just as you would correct a mispronunciation.

Some job seekers may choose to use a nickname on their resumes and job applications. This is a personal choice, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to use any name other than your own.

Work with Insight Global on Workplace Culture and DEI

It’s normal to forget someone’s name or to struggle to pronounce an unfamiliar name. However, by taking a little extra time and attention, you can show respect to all your colleagues.

If your workplace culture isn’t as inclusive as you’d like, Insight Global offers multiple services to improve company culture and to teach DEI. Fill out the form below to see how we can help.

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