to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond


Nicknames are as common in male-dominated workplaces as they are in the schoolyard. In some workplace cultures, such as firefighting, nicknames are the norm and men who don't get a nickname wonder what it will take to get one. Most nicknames are a derivative of the person's name. When I was young, I used to get "green eggs and ham" and when I went to university, sometimes I'd get "hamster". No harm done. Some nicknames are earned by humourous behaviour, such as "trip" for a guy who is known to be clumsy on his feet. Unless this is caused by some disability, most guys with such a nickname laugh it off. Hence, there are plenty of examples where nicknames are considered a form of endearment or camaraderie and they are welcomed.


So where's the harm in nicknames? There doesn’t have to be any harm. However, the harm is when guys use nicknames of characteristics we can't or shouldn't be expected to change. I remember one example years ago when a fellow in a room full of mostly male police officers told me that nicknames he used, including "Dumbo," were terms of endearment that let a fellow know he was one of the guys. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man flinch. I looked his way, only to see a fellow with big ears. The officer who had just spoken suddenly went on the defensive. Digging himself in deeper, he attempted to explain why he'd come up with "Dumbo," and once again, the officer known as Dumbo flinched.


As a silence in the room became noticeable, the large-eared officer spoke up to tell the group he had always hated that name, and said so more than 10 years ago. He added that he didn't understand why people continued to use it.


Though police have the image of being big and tough, able to take anything, this incident let me know there are limits. As I emphasize to employees who are in a “tough” business, if you're getting harangued by outsiders while on the job, such as police, all the more reason to be respectful to one another inside the workplace. But you don’t have to be in a tough business to expect people to treat you well, and if you don’t like a nickname, others should respect that.



1) Recognize the nickname dilemma - even if it seems silly. If an employee, especially a rookie, gets an unwelcomed nickname, he can protest, but he knows that's usually a formula for making the name stick until retirement. He knows it's better to say nothing and to hope for a better one to come along, even if the odds aren't great. As a supervisor, recognize this dilemma; don't assume silence means everything is fine.


2) Talk to the nicknamed - and get his side. If you hear a nickname that makes you cringe, but the guy doesn't say anything, take him aside and ask what he thinks. Tell him this conversation won't go anywhere unless he wants it to. Chances are with that approach, he'll tell you his true feelings about the name.


3) Don't allow, "If I had to put up with it, so do you." Instead, be a supervisor who says, "Because it was bad for me, I don't want it to be bad for you." Make a difference for those on your shift; they'll reward you with the kind of loyalty and respect money can't buy.


Note: this tip was about men and nicknames. However, the advice applies when it involves anyone.

This is TIP #18 of 26 BI-WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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