Organisational culture and first names

By Frederick Mordi

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” he addressed the staff on his maiden town hall meeting, “my name is Ansel Achara. I am your new MD. You can call me Ansel, or if you prefer my initials, A. A for short.”

But the staff could not bring themselves to call him ‘Ansel.’ They either called him ‘MD’ or Mr. Achara. The company does not have the culture of calling bosses by their first names. He is the first person that would attempt to break this unwritten tradition. Despite his repeated assurances that that was the way to go in the modern business world, the staff politely declined to call him by his first name. He gave up further attempts to change their mindset. Old habits, they say, die hard.

IK faced a different dilemma when he joined a leading bank in Lagos some time ago. Fresh from Harvard and coming from a culture where you called everyone by their first names, he assumed it was not only a universal way of relating with one’s superiors and subordinates, but also the right thing to do.

However, when he called the MD by his first name at a board meeting a few days after he assumed duty, he received a rude shock. He was told curtly that he should address the MD as ‘MD’ or by his last name preceded by a title. The top shots of the bank frowned at the imprudent young Harvard graduate, who failed to treat the dignified position of ‘MD’ with some respect. IK had never felt so embarrassed all his life. Not intending to be in the bad books of the MD or anyone for that matter, he quickly adapted to the company’s ‘way of life.’

Imoyi’s case is more pathetic. Even after receiving several stern verbal warnings and a strongly worded memo from a consulting company, which recently offered him a job, he still could not call his bosses by their first names, as was the company’s culture. He came from a culture that accords deep respect for elders. He carried this culture that was difficult to uproot, into the work place.

Heartily sick of Imoyi’s rigidity, his direct boss angrily summoned him into his office after some time to find out why he found it difficult to call his superiors by their first names. He said Imoyi was embarrassing the company and told him point blank that it was either he adapted fast to the firm’s way of life or he should start looking for another job. Such is the predicament many people who frequently switch jobs have found themselves in.

If you find yourself in this dilemma, you are not alone. It is an issue that affects employees, particularly new hires, who struggle to bridge the deep cultural divide they often encounter when they first assume duty.

What do you call your boss in the office? Ansel? Mr. Ansel? Mr. Achara? MD? A.A? Boss? Oga? Chief? Alhaji? Sir? What if you have a female boss? What do you call her?  Is there a standard way of addressing bosses? The answer is not as easy as it seems.

For instance, David (call him Dave) Morand, a professor of management at Pennsylvania State University, found in a study he released in 1994 that bosses and workers seem to get along quite well when they call each other by their first names.

“This is a very important device and a symbolic leveling of status,” Dave said. “Your relationship is supposed to be collegial, this sets the tone for that.”

Dave observed that a boss who establishes a first-name relationship on the first day of work, like Ansel did, would immediately set an immediate positive tone for employees. In the study where he conducted interviews with employees and officials, he noticed that mutual first-naming is common to big corporations regardless of position.

Whenever employees in such companies inadvertently called their CEO and other top officials by a title and last name, they were openly reprimanded but in a pleasant way. In fact in some organisations, Dave said there is an existing explicit policy on first names. Employees who are not comfortable calling the boss by a first name, unconsciously practice what he termed ‘name avoidance,’ where they are silent on the name of the boss when they are talking about him.

To address this problem, he advised bosses to let their subordinates know from the outset what they prefer to be called. Without direction from the boss, he added, many employees would consider it a perilous mission to call their bosses by their first names.

“Managers may need to listen for the silence of an employee not using any name,” he counseled. “It’s better having bosses make clear what they prefer to be called than having name avoidance fester in workplaces.”

Given the current dynamics of the global work environment that emphasises teamwork, Dave said it is not out of place for forward-looking organisations to also adopt the habit of using first names. This creates an atmosphere of conviviality that can in turn impact on productivity. But he admitted there are some bosses who cling tightly to traditional power and would take serious offence at any attempt to usurp their authority.

But Jill Bremer, an executive coach and trainer, who consults for Fortune 500 companies, disagrees with this view. In an article entitled: ‘Showing Deference in the Workplace,’ Jill argues that even though a casual work environment can foster closer bonding, too much informality is not good as it can lead to careless remarks that create ill feelings.

“There is a real need to create a work environment filled with courtesy, self-restraint, and respect,” Jill said. “A good way to start is with how you show deference to others. Deference is an act of high regard and respect owed an elder, superior or visitor. In business settings, deference is based upon rank.”

While noting that many American companies operate flat organisational structures that do not recognise hierarchy, she insists that there are still employees with titles and positions that deserve some respect in the workplace. One of the biggest blunders people make in the workplace, she added, is assuming they are on a first name basis with everyone else.

“Don’t make this mistake!” Jill warned. “Until you have an established business relationship with someone or have been invited to do otherwise, address others using an honorific (‘Mr.’, ‘Ms.,’ ‘Dr.’, etc.) with their last name. This holds true even if they call you by your first name. Using honorifics and last names displays class and sophistication. Exception: If you can quickly surmise that you are about the same age and rank as the other person, you may call them by their first name.”

But in institutions such as the academia, the military and political settings, formal naming patterns persist. For instance, in an ivory tower, it would be considered an unpardonable slight to address a ‘Prof’ or a ‘Doc’ by their first names! It just won’t do! As a rule of thumb, when you address a politician or a professor, use formal names, except you are their age mates or close friends. The same thing applies to superiors you are not too familiar with.

In the final analysis the old adage: when in Rome, do as the Romans do, may be quite instructive if you want to be on the safe side.

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9 responses to “Organisational culture and first names”

  1. Angela Selekere says :

    Hello Fred,
    This is a nice piece of work, very interesting read. You virtually captured all the aspects and possible reactions to “first name” issues at work; and your finaly analysis says it all. Kudos.

  2. inigh says :

    When in Rome do as the Romans, however I find that formal addresses such as Mr, Mrs, Dr etc are far less intrusive or offensive.

  3. Ginika says :

    I think using first names creates some kind of ease in an organisation. People will surely work better

  4. Meera Pillai says :

    In my first job, I called my Managing Director and Department Head by their first names. It was the same in every job, after that — till I came to what is certainly going to be my last formal job. Here, everyone goes ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’, from morning to night.
    When there’s no choice, adapt.

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