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Navigating the blurred line in workplace nicknames

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Name-calling is a common practice in the Kenyan corporate workplace. From low-level employees to the C-suite, nicknames define relationships among colleagues and can be a helpful barometer of the organisation’s health.

Yet, a nickname can be a source of motivation or discrimination to the bearer, necessitating organisations to develop policies to guide what is acceptable to maintain a conducive workplace.

Some firms ask for employees’ preferred nicknames while onboarding them and outline the steps they should take if they opt to drop them later.

But what is in a nickname?

Millon Alango, or ‘Min Toto’, found motivation in the nickname. She had worked at a production house in Nairobi for almost two years before her colleague gave her the name, which meant a mother of a child. Millon did not know about it until one day during an office meeting.

“It was just random. She just said ‘Min Toto’ should contribute to the meeting,” she recalls.

To Ms Alango, the name had a happy connotation of love, and it brought a smile to her face as she remembered the bundle of joy waiting for her at home while she was working.

“This name made me a good mother, and it helped me embrace single motherhood because I felt I was recognised by my colleagues, and they respected me for that,” she adds.

Unlike Ms Alango, Jemimah Muthoni* was irked by her nickname ‘KitKat.’

For a long time, she was unaware of it until a colleague disclosed it, revealing that her boss had given her the nickname.

“I was given the name because I always took lunch and coffee breaks, which I thought was normal. As a result, I would get fewer assignments compared to my colleagues. It really affected me because they thought I was unreliable,” she says.

Even though the nickname was a source of torment, Jemimah, not wanting to ruffle feathers, decided to warn her colleagues against using it. She laughed about it until the day she got another job and then finally confronted them.

“They apologised and said it was all in good faith,” she says.

When to nickname

Dr Joyce Wangari, a Consultant Psychologist, says that a nickname or pet name in the workplace constitutes a label, an informal name typically shortened to describe the quality or feature of someone with whom one feels endeared.

“Nicknames can be deemed acceptable only if they are not offensive. So, if the mannerisms and demeanour are in a nice style that does not make one feel inferior, then that is okay,” she elaborates.

Pros and cons

While monikers convey impressions, expectations and assessments, their positives and negatives depend on the meaning, context, and who generates them.

Dr Wangari shares that while using informal names to address colleagues signifies affinity and friendship, fosters a sense of belonging and acceptance, and brings humour, it can also lead to perceptions of discrimination, harassment, and division.

She elaborates, “The risk of a nickname moving from safe to unsafe depends on whether consent was given, the employee’s autonomy was respected, and the closeness between the person giving the nickname and the recipient.”

For instance, last year, the Daily Nation reported the case of a lawyer who was in court fighting to retain her job at a civil society group after she was sacked over allegations she had called her junior male staff ‘baby boy’; a nickname that the employer considered to be sexual harassment.

According to court papers, the female lawyer would also refer to the unidentified man as ‘boy lollipop,’ a name he was given without his consent.

“It was concluded that the petitioner was involved in sexual harassment of an employee whom she had supervisory control over by repeatedly using the term’ baby boy’ and ‘boy lollipop’ when referring to him without his consent and through advances of a sexual nature that were both verbal and physical,” said the employer’s advocates.

Ethics and etiquette

Hosea Buliba, a lead consultant with Denidel Consortium, says that the code of conduct (the bible of every workplace) must stipulate what is allowed or not in regard to dealing with nicknames at work.

Though anchored on the company culture, Mr Buliba acknowledges, “There are some organisations that ask you, when you join, ‘Which is your preferred name and what nickname do you prefer?’ So, if you have such a setup, it is easy to know what everyone likes being preferred.”

Additionally, Mr Buliba explains that if the name is not culturally acceptable, then the management blacklists them.

However, if an employee outgrows the moniker, Mr Buliba shares that, according to the policy, the employee is free to change, though initially, it will take some time for the new one to become familiar.

“The rule of thumb when dealing with nicknames in the workplace is that they should be used within the confines of the setting and not externally.”