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Mispronunciation of names can reflect a culture of discrimination

People who belong to a group that has legal protections against employment discrimination often talk about suffering “microaggressions” at work – even if they haven’t faced blatant, legally actionable discrimination. They may not use – or even know – that word. However, microaggressions have been defined as a “statement, action or incident regarded as indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination [toward] members of a marginalized group, such as a racial or ethnic minority,” 

One example of microaggressions suffered by many employees is the repeated mispronunciation of their names. That may be intentional or unintentional. However, when it’s done by people an employee interacts with every day, it’s at the very least an unwillingness to learn the correct pronunciation. 

In some cases, co-workers or managers may even insist on anglicizing a “foreign-sounding” name to something that’s easy to pronounce. These microaggressions are often more common toward people of African, Middle Eastern or Asian ancestry than those of Italian, Irish and other ancestries with whom people are often more familiar (although Irish actress Saoirse Ronan might disagree.)

For years, people with long or unique names that reflected their ancestry would shorten or anglicize their names to make it easier to get work and to fit in. Now, as people are embracing their ancestry, fewer feel that requirement. 

Name mispronunciation can feel like more than a personal insult

Repeated mispronunciation of our name by co-workers and managers can understandably be viewed as disrespectful. That’s particularly true if people make no real effort to learn or use the correct pronunciation. Our names are part of our identity. We were named by our parents (maybe after them). Our names help people carry on their ancestry – even if their family has lived in the country for generations.

Sometimes people are embarrassed that they struggle to pronounce a co-worker’s name, so they make a joke out of it—which can make things worse. One neuroscientist from the Middle East explains, “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.”

Mispronouncing an employee’s name – even intentionally – is likely not grounds for legal action. However, if this is a problem and your employer is refusing to address it, it may well be a sign of a larger problem of more serious discriminatory behavior in the workplace. If that’s the case, and that discrimination has harmed your ability to do your job, be treated fairly or progress in your field, it’s wise to seek legal guidance.