Office Politics 101: What's in a name?
Q: I’m a female and my boss, a guy, has recently given me a nick-name I don’t like. Now some co-workers are also starting to use it. I quite like my boss, but this is very upsetting to me. What should I do to stop people from using this nickname?
A: Many of us will remember our high school days when nicknames were sometimes used to tease people; in fact, my recollection is that virtually all nicknames were designed to make fun of someone.
Nicknames are seemingly designed to emphasize the one thing that a person may struggle with; the perpetrator understands this anxiety and uses it to inflict pain or at least annoyance.
Such torment may be as mild as nicknames related to body type or hair colour, for example, or as troubling as those concerning racial background or gender stereotypes.
Nicknames, by definition, assume that the recipient will at the very least be made to feel somewhat uncomfortable although with the passing of time, it may be less disconcerting.
People will on occasion substitute their given name for an informal name — especially in a work or school setting — but this is not to be confused with a nickname as it is personally selected for individual reasons.
In your case, you don’t like the nickname chosen by your boss. but I’d like to suggest that probably any nickname would be offensive to you.
While you may quite like your boss, he has authority over you; the act of giving you a nickname, therefore, could be seen as an act of influence that shows disrespect.
What are his motives in giving you a nickname?
He may find it amusing, an expression of appropriate affection. You, however, feel demeaned and may even worry that co-workers will have less regard for your responsibilities.
You should have mentioned it immediately — when he first introduced the nickname. It will be more difficult now, but you still need to speak to him.
It will likely be uncomfortable for both of you, but arrange to meet with him, behind closed doors, and ask specifically that he immediately discontinue using the nickname.
Don’t extend the discussion to other topics and allow him to respond if he wishes.
He may become defensive — which is understandable — but, you still need to be firm with your request or else he may continue to use it occasionally, when you are both meeting in his office, for example.
Your new nickname is a gentle form of harassment that needs to be addressed without delay. Be respectful, but ask your boss to stop using it. His intentions may be honorable; nonetheless, you can’t work in an environment where you feel disrespected as a result of being given this nickname.
Simon Gibson is a university professor, marketing executive, corporate writer and civic leader. He is a graduate of four public universities, including Simon Fraser University, where he earned his doctorate in education. He also also holds a degree in journalism (honours) from Carleton University. His email address can be found here.