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Why mispronunciation of names can be a form of discrimination

On Behalf of | Oct 11, 2022 | Employment Law |

Employers can strive to follow the law when it comes to discrimination and harassment. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a workplace feels safe and inclusive for everyone. 

People in legally protected classes often describe suffering microaggressions at work. Microaggressions have been defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities…that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults….”

One example that many people face is the regular mispronunciation of their name by colleagues and managers. Sometimes, people use a shortened (or “Americanized”) form of someone’s name rather than learn to say their name correctly.

Why this can feel like an especially personal insult

Our names reflect who we are and where we came from. By having co-workers and bosses who refuse to learn and use our given names – especially because they’re “foreign” or “ethnic” — is a form of discrimination. While it may not be legally actionable, it can be a symptom of a larger workplace problem. It can certainly cause an employee to feel unwelcome and unvalued.

It’s understandable that someone might mispronounce a name that has multiple syllables or sounds that aren’t common in English at first. However, when they make no effort to learn the correct pronunciation when they interact with someone regularly, that signals a level of disrespect.

Why making a joke of it makes it worse

Those who have experienced this type of microaggression note that what adds insult to injury is when people laugh at their own or others’ mispronunciation. As one person born in the Middle East noted, “When it’s a butchering [of my name] and there are a bunch of people laughing, it throws me off for the rest of the day.”

It doesn’t help that the names commonly mispronounced tend to be those of Middle Eastern, Asian and African origin. No one seems to have a problem pronouncing an “ethnic” name like Leonardo DiCaprio.

As noted, this microaggression – and others – can be a sign of a culture of discrimination and/or harassment in a workplace. If you are not able to get help from your Human Resources department or your manager for issues that are making it difficult to do your job or advance in your profession, it may be helpful to find out what other options you may have.