The First Step to An Inclusive Work Culture: Getting Your Colleagues’ Names Right
This article from Hadeil Ali originally appeared on Index, a publication from Medium.
In December 2021, I attended my first work holiday party since 2019. I was enthusiastic to finally mingle and meet new people. (I couldn’t remember the last time I had done that). One of the guests approached me and introduced themselves. Upon learning I am Egyptian American, they fondly shared their experience spending time in the Middle East. They didn’t want to be a typical “American,” so they spent much of their time getting to know the locals in Cairo. They were even more excited when I shared that I lead the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) portfolio at a prominent think tank in Washington, D.C. It was affirming to have a conversation with another professional that vehemently agreed that more must be done to prioritize DEI — and act upon it — in U.S. institutions. They criticized D.C. institutions specifically for being predominantly white and male despite the rich culture and diversity of the nation’s capital. Everything seemed to be going great until they asked me for my name.
I said: “Hadeil.”
They responded bluntly: “Sorry, I cannot say that name.”
Shock. Humiliation. Anger. They seemed “woke.” They seemed to “get it.” Yet, they couldn’t take a brief moment to learn how to pronounce my name.
This was not the first — and will not be the last — time I experienced this type of microaggression. For most of my life in the United States, I resented having such a “difficult” name. I began to ask myself, “Why didn’t my parents think through this?” I wondered if things would have been easier if my name had been anglicized. I felt I couldn’t make lasting professional connections because of my name. I felt alienated and othered. A student I mentored confessed to me that she changed her name to something more “American” at a young age to avoid the same struggles I was facing. She now regrets masking her Latinx background. Who knew names could be such a source of joy for some but also a source of anguish and rage for others?
In his book How to Win and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares: “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Using names has a positive psychological effect on people. Researchers found that hearing your own name shows greater brain activation, and people are typically more alert and attentive when they hear their name. Given this data, combined with my continuous frustration, I decided to take steps to make my life “easier.” I edited my Zoom information to include my name and the phonetic pronunciation so that colleagues that join calls have the opportunity to see how my name is pronounced. I also added a feature to my email signature and LinkedIn profile so that colleagues can hear my name. These steps helped me unlearn my previous resentment, stop perceiving my name as a burden, and reconnect with my name and my heritage.
Names are important because they comprise so much of our identity. In time, I came to remember that my name is a beautiful reminder of my story. I take pride in my name because it defines my own identity as an Arab American Muslim woman. It connects me to the love I have for my Egyptian heritage. My parents were intentional about picking unique names for my brother and me. I am grateful for that now.
Taking these extra steps to help others say my name helped some. Even still, I continue to hear things such as: “I just can’t get it right, sorry.” And even, “Your name is not easy. I am not sure I will be able to call on you during the session.”
Unfortunately, it did not solve the issue at its core: carelessness and lack of sensitivity.
Cultivating and fostering a truly inclusive workplace means meeting each other at least halfway. In my case, I went out of my way to make my name easier for my colleagues. However, I cannot be the only one working to make things easier for others. And unfortunately, challenges with names tend to fall predominately on individuals from diverse, underrepresented, or marginalized identities. I know this from my own experiences as one of the few Arab American Muslim women within my own organization, and through the conversations I have with other colleagues of color and culture.
Asking colleagues to disproportionately shoulder the burden of emotional labor does not make for a healthy, inclusive work environment. The good news is that there are easy steps everyone can take to appreciate and celebrate the diversity of their coworkers in a way that makes them feel seen and heard.
Here is what you should avoid or ask your colleagues to avoid:
- Avoiding the person’s name in a meeting/call. I have been in countless meetings where people decide to circumvent my name entirely to prevent making a mistake. The worst part is that they say everyone’s name except mine. Your intention is not to get my name wrong, but the impact makes me feel unseen.
- Making a point that my name is different. You don’t need to state that you haven’t heard this name before or how difficult it will be to get it right. This makes me feel “othered,” and that because my name is different, I too am different and thus don’t belong.
- Publicly stating your opinion on my name in a group. “Interesting name. I am not sure I will be able to get this one right.” Some things do not need to be said publicly. You’re doing so in a group setting makes me feel alienated.
- Continuously misspelling someone’s name in email exchanges. Simply put — pay attention. Before sending any email, whether the person is a senior executive, a manager, or an intern, take the 10 seconds to make sure the spelling is correct. When you don’t, it makes me feel dismissed.
How to be part of the solution:
- Pay attention to how the individual pronounces their name. If it puzzles you, write down the phonetic pronunciation in your notes. If you mispronounce it, own up to it and do better.
- Follow up. If you forget how it is pronounced, say: “I am sorry, could you please pronounce your name for me again. I want to make sure I get it right.” Apologies and questions are always welcomed, but lack of effort or empathy are not.
- Be an ally. An old colleague and dear friend of mine would step in every time someone would ignore me in meetings. Her strategy was so tactful: “This question is within Hadeil’s expertise,” or “I will let Hadeil step in here to share her thoughts.” She made a point to emphasize the correct pronunciation of my name.
- Be self-aware. There is a time and place for everything. Limit any repetitive questions or comments about a colleague’s name in group settings.
- Make an effort. It always goes back to doing the work. Regularly making mistakes demonstrates a lack of effort and care. It communicates an unwillingness to prioritize your colleagues and an inclusive work environment. It says a lot to me when some of my colleagues get it right after one or two times, while others continuously make pronunciation mistakes or completely ignore me in meetings. You are the problem, not my name.
The first step to creating an inclusive work culture is learning your colleagues’ names. People respond more positively when they feel acknowledged and respected. It is proven time and time again that people are a lot more receptive in discussions when they are recognized. This is your responsibility as a peer, colleague, and — especially — as a manager.
To again quote Dale Carnegie, “Remember my name and you add to my feeling of importance.” We must see the value in using our colleagues’ names. We must create a culture of belonging and not exclusion. I finally love and appreciate my name. Will you help make that reality for every single one of your colleagues in your workplace?