What Not To Say When You Don't Know How To Pronounce A Co-worker's Name

It's more than common courtesy to get someone's name right, so avoid these mistakes.
Big tip: Don’t announce you’re about to butcher someone’s name.
JakeOlimb via Getty Images
Big tip: Don’t announce you’re about to butcher someone’s name.

Names are how we identify who we are to each other. Knowing how to say a colleague’s name correctly is more than a common courtesy: It’s the most basic form of respect.

It’s not just rude to keep mispronouncing a co-worker’s name; getting it right is also critical to helping that co-worker advance in their career. A 2019 Twitter thread by Princeton University computer science professor Arvind Narayanan, for example, detailed how he lost out on a job opportunity because a peer didn’t connect his name to the research he’d published.

Sometimes the fallout can be even more blatant.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan, author of “The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace,” shared how a hiring manager directly told her that her hard-to-pronounce name was a reason why she didn’t get a call back for an interview.

Name discrimination persists in hiring. In a 2019 study, economists sent out 83,000 job applications for positions at 108 major U.S. companies, and applicants with Black-sounding names were called back 10% fewer times across the board compared with those who had white-sounding names and had the same qualifications.

Beyond egregious acts of discrimination, the negative effects of name bias can also be subtle and insidious. Tulshyan said what she experiences more often than what the hiring manager disclosed to her is that people avoid making eye contact with her so they don’t have to say her name.

“The challenge is in the subtle. The challenge is in ‘Is my name being said in these rooms or is it not? Am I being invited to networking events that are not listed in the company website?’” Tulshyan said.

If you have a name that colleagues keep mispronouncing, there are tools on LinkedIn and Google Assistant that can record your preferred pronunciation for online communication. But technology alone will not stop this from happening: Everyone has a responsibility to make colleagues feel welcomed and included, from the very first introduction.

That’s why it’s so important to show respect to your colleagues and to avoid the easily avoidable mistakes people make when they don’t know how to say a name. You can never undo that first impression.

Here are the most common mistakes to avoid at work:

1. Don’t start an introduction by announcing that you are going to butcher their name.

Watch how you communicate in an introduction. Word choice makes a big difference.

In a recent popular LinkedIn post, Damneet Kaur, an HR analyst based in California, shared an instance in which a colleague said they were going to “butcher her name”:

I was in a meeting in which the host went over the attendance and I knew it was time for them to say my name because they started the sentence with, “I might butcher this…”, and then proceeded to do exactly that, “butcher” my name. As I turned on my microphone to introduce myself, my pronouns, and the correct pronunciation of my name, I felt the same embarrassing energy I have felt since moving to the US at the age of 5, where it has always felt like no one knows how to say my name.

What does it mean to butcher something? It’s easy to say that, but language is so important,” Kaur told HuffPost. “People hold their own ancestral history to a name, people hold their own story to their name. Someone might’ve changed their name if they are transitioning. Names are very sacred.”

Instead of bumbling through an incorrect pronunciation, be upfront about your lack of knowledge, and ask your co-worker how they say their name.

In her post, Kaur suggested that colleagues try leading with, “I may mispronounce your name because it is new to me, so I will spell it out and let you introduce yourself,” or “There is a name in this room I do not know how to pronounce, and I would be grateful if you could teach us how to correctly pronounce your name.”

Or, if there is time, you can avoid putting your colleague on the spot in front of their peers by asking them ahead of the meeting or asking someone who works with them.

In her article, Tulshyan shared how a professional award she received was tainted by how the emcee butchered her name. “I would’ve been delighted if she had clarified the pronunciation in the 10 minutes we were chatting before we went up on stage,” she wrote.

2. Don’t avoid saying your co-worker’s name because it’s hard for you to pronounce.

If you don’t know how to say a co-worker’s name, you cannot give up and avoid it.

People’s names are not mistakes, so we shouldn’t be saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I just can’t get your name right.’ We should be trying harder,” Kaur said. “I know for me, having a name that isn’t easily understood in English, it does make me feel more understood and seen for someone to at least try.”

Tulshyan said that thinking it’s not a big deal not to say someone’s name is the biggest mistake people make.

“It really comes down to awareness and being thoughtful,” she said, adding that because she has experienced all too often the cringey moment of “Oh, hello, welcome Miss... uhh... hi,” she now knows to ask other people, “Can you please pronounce your name for me?” And if they do share, to really actively listen.

If you do mispronounce a colleague’s name, don’t make an apology about how hard it is for you to get it right. Apologize and hold yourself to a promise to do better the next time.

Apologies should be rooted in accountability,” Kaur noted.

3. Don’t use a nickname without your co-worker’s permission.

Your co-worker gets to decide when it is appropriate for you to use a nickname for them. Don’t request that of your co-worker because you believe it is too hard to say their name.

Lawrese Brown, the founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company, says this is a common mistake she sees people make.

“Sometimes when people’s names are uncommon or unfamiliar to us, we jump ahead and say, ‘I’m just going to call you ‘Nic’ or ... ‘Mo’ ― No! If that’s not a name the person goes by, then don’t use it,” Brown said.

Don’t assume that a nickname is a welcome way to address your colleague.

“If I’m the one who has the name, I can offer a solution maybe, but for you to just pitch a solution on, ‘Oh, can I just give you a nickname?’ It’s like, ‘No, you can’t. We’re not friends, we are colleagues,’” Kaur said.

4. Don’t keep repeating their name as you learn it. Practice if you need to, but do it in private.

Sometimes it can take practice to commit a name to memory, but continuing to repeat your co-worker’s name in front of them just serves as a reminder that you think of their name as foreign or unfamiliar. Don’t make the act of learning to say their name a big deal.

Tulshyan said that repeating the name once or twice is OK, because it communicates that you are being an active listener. But saying it more than that comes across as disrespect.

It could be perceived as you’re making fun of it or you’re doubling on making the other person feel like they’re different,” Tulshyan said.

If you need to say a name more than those few times to get it right, have that teaching moment by yourself. “If I need to practice, I’m going to do it in private,” Tulshyan said.

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