Why getting people's names right at work matters more than you think

Businesswoman and businessman talking in modern office.
While most of us won’t take offence at being called the wrong name once or twice, unapologetically getting names wrong can affect workplace relationships. Photo: Getty

You’ve been working at a company for nearly a year, but your boss still doesn’t know your name. He often calls you “Linda” or “Laura” — even after you’re corrected him — and he barely looks at you when he asks you to sit in on a meeting. At first it was funny, but now it’s irritating and rude.

We all get names wrong from time to time. It can be easy to mix people up and when we’re typing in a hurry over email or WhatsApp, autocorrect can trip us up too. However, routinely getting people’s names wrong can have a seriously detrimental impact on their wellbeing, confidence and even their work. So why can it be so costly to use a misnomer?

While most of us won’t take offence at being called the wrong name once or twice, unapologetically getting names wrong can affect workplace relationships, explains Olivia James, a London-based performance and confidence coach. Our names are our identity and signify belonging, so being called the wrong one can feel exclusionary.

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“Relationships are key to individual and team performance,” she explains. “Not getting people’s names right can show you’re not good at people skills, building rapport and building relationships and this can be costly in terms of finance and loyalty.

“It can affect your ability to get new business, to have people want to please you and be loyal and cooperative,” James adds. “This loyalty is vital, especially in times of crisis.”

Names represent who we are and where we come from — and they can have a big influence on where we end up, whether we like it or not. In fact, research suggests what we’re called can impact our prospects in life because they reveal clues about our gender, ethnicity and age.

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If you struggle to pronounce the name of a colleague, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re a racist or a bully. But when a name is continually and purposefully mispronounced, it can become a source of stress, anxiety and frustration for the individual.

Mispronunciation becomes ostracising when an individual refuses to learn the correct way to say a colleague’s name, assigns them a different nickname without their permission, or uses the minority colleague’s name in a condescending way.

In fact, deliberately misnaming someone is a common microaggression in the workplace. These are seemingly minor put downs and insults that many employees endure at work every day, which reinforce stereotypes or bias.

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Microaggressions are normally related to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or disability status. Although they may seem inconsequential, they can have a serious impact on people’s wellbeing, confidence, performance and engagement with work — which can negatively affect their career progression.

And managers and colleagues who make no effort to remember names may do well to consider how it affects their reputation and employees. Getting people’s names wrong can suggest a lack of attention or even an attitude problem, giving an air of self-importance if you ignore people’s corrections.

“Attention to detail is important. If you are sloppy about names you’re probably careless about other things too,” James says. “How you do one thing is how you do everything. This can be a red flag.

“It can make an employee feel they don’t matter, they don’t belong. It can signal lack of inclusion, team spirit, cohesion, collaboration and reciprocity,” she adds.

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“If someone can’t be bothered to get my name right, do I feel loyal and motivated? Would I go out of my way to do them a favour, make them look good? I may feel I can’t win with this person and even feel discriminated against. Employees may even leave if this problem persists.”

If you struggle to remember names, writing them down can help. And if your mind goes blank or you’re not sure about how a name should be pronounced, politely ask — let them guide you. And perhaps most importantly, make the effort to apologise if you forget or get it wrong — everyone makes mistakes, and owning up is the respectful thing to do.