First-Name Basis Can Break the Workplace Ice

From Reuters

Should Dagwood Bumstead start calling his cranky boss by his first name, Julius, instead of Mr. Dithers to improve their working relationship?

That could be a big step in the right direction, said David (Call Me Dave) Morand, a professor of management at Pennsylvania State University.

He released a study this week concluding bosses and workers are better off 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 said his two-year study found first names are much more common in the workplace today than they were 20 years ago as society has grown more democratized.

A boss establishing a first-name basis on the first day of work “would set an immediate positive tone” for an employee, he said.

“That could mean just as much, if not more, to you than the fact that I’ve eliminated the executive dining and washrooms, the preferred parking and office spaces, and the time clocks and dress codes,” he said.

In fact, in many major companies, reciprocal first-naming is universal from the lowliest maintenance worker or receptionist to right up to the chief executive. Dave’s study drew from interviews with employees and officials at Hewlett Packard, Mars Inc., Xerox Corp. and Walt Disney Co.

In those companies, if employees call top officials and the chief executive by a title and last name, they are openly corrected in a friendly way, he said.

At United Parcel Service, he said, there was even an explicit policy calling for all employees to use their first names within the organization.

The vast majority of the hundreds of employees he interviewed preferred being on a first-name basis with their bosses, he said.

Dave said one of the biggest problems arises when employees aren’t comfortable calling the boss by a first name or last, resulting in what he calls “name avoidance.”

Some people reported spending years literally avoiding naming their superiors at work.

He said those workers are uncomfortable with the connotation of status and deference that goes with the use of a title and last name, like Mr. Jones, but without direction from the boss find it too risky to use the first name instead.

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

However, in some places, such as the military, banks and government agencies, Dave concedes traditional naming patterns are expected to persist.

“I’d love to know what President Clinton’s Cabinet calls him in those meetings,” he said, noting Clinton, a product of the 1960s, seems to be more informal. Dave predicted many Cabinet members use name avoidance.

A White House spokeswoman said Cabinet members refer to Clinton as Mr. President. “Just the fact that they claim they call him Mr. President shows they want to portray him in a conservative direction,” Dave said.

But he said most organizations that have to be competitive in the global economy and are increasingly decentralized and use words like teamwork and camaraderie need to go to a reciprocal first-name basis.

What about bosses who want to hold on to that traditional power?

“If it’s a question of a manager who likes being ‘sir-ed’ a lot, then that’s a problem. It’s a tricky situation,” Dave admitted.

At some point, he said, the employee may need to take the initiative and start calling the superior by a first name.

Now, if Dagwood could only stop Mr. Dithers from kicking him in the seat.