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Globe & Mail
Globe Careers, C1, C2
Wednesday, August 15, 2007



        Wright Methods supports experienced business leaders master the skills
                                 they need to excel.


                                  Hey, Shorty, watch out for
                                  Grumpy
                                  Use of fun, sometimes silly, monikers on
                                  bosses, co-workers can make work more
                                  enjoyable - or backfire

                                  RANDY RAY

                                  Special to The Globe and Mail

                                  August 15, 2007

                                  Family members, clients and friends know her as
                                  Lorena Cordoba. But, at work, she answers to LC,
                                  MC, MC Hammer, Hammy Cakes or The Hammer.

                                  And when Ms. Cordoba wants to call on Karen
                                  Gumbs, she's more likely to holler for Gummy Bear,
                                  Gum Balls or Gumbalaya.

                                  Co-worker Miriam Zitner? Oh, you mean MZ. If
                                  you're looking for the Baroness, that would be Jennifer
                                  Barron. As for Andrea de la Cuba, twitter, twitter, her
                                  co-workers call her Fidel, Fiddie and Cubetta.

All of the women are public relations consultants in the technology group of marketing
and communications company Cohn & Wolfe in Toronto, where they're more apt to be
called by this variety of fun, sometimes silly, monikers than their given names.

As recipients of on-the-job nicknames, they are not alone. In many workplaces, doling
out nicknames to co-workers and bosses is as much a part of the workday as e-mailing,
human resource experts say.

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"Nicknames are part and parcel of most organizations," from factory-shop floors to
white-collar workplaces, says Ed Ng, an assistant professor of business administration
and human resources specialist at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

Many experts say that nicknaming can be a positive workplace influence - provided
monikers are issued in a fun and friendly way.

"Usually, if the intent is good and workers are trying to have fun, there is no harm done,"
says Claude Balthazard, director of human resources excellence for the Human Resources
Professionals Association of Ontario. "We'd all go insane if we didn't have some fun at
work."

Others, however, warn that tagging colleagues even with the most innocent-sounding
names, never mind derogatory ones, can backfire.

"Even if they are well-intentioned, nicknames can make colleagues feel uncomfortable,"
warns Phoebe Wright, president of Wright Methods Inc., a Toronto-based executive
coaching and training firm.

Workplace nicknames are born of reasons as varied as the names themselves, Prof. Ng
says.

Many stem from physical attributes and personality traits, such as Red or Silver Fox,
because of someone's hair colour, or Grumpy because of a sour demeanour, he says.

Others, such as Plebe or Junior, signify a lower ranking on the organizational totem pole,
and some mark boundaries in an office, such as Al's Gals, for women favoured by a male
boss, or Golden Boy, for a boss's favoured employee.

Some titles are abbreviated first names, such as Lar for Larry or Mel for Melanie, while
others stem from employees having fun with the sound or words in a fellow worker's real
name, such as the gummy titles handed to Ms. Gumbs.

Some nicknames are workplace badges of honour worn with pride while others are far
less flattering and often used behind a person's back.

Diehard could be the office workaholic, so named out of respect by fellow employees for
regularly going beyond the call of duty, while Snail could be attached to a slacker, Prof.
Ng says.

Ms. Cordoba's string of nicknames, pinned on her by a colleague soon after she joined the
company, started with her initials, LC, which "evolved naturally" into MC, and then
morphed into MC Hammer and The Hammer, after American rap star Stanley Burrell.
Hammy Cakes came later, all in the spirit of fun.




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                                           -3-

The instigator of most nicknames at Cohn & Wolfe is Daniela Gentile, whose Italian
heritage is chock full of nicknames, including Ninni, a word in northern Italian dialect
meaning little boy.

Years ago, Ninni was pinned on her cousin René, now a 35-year-old lawyer and father of
three, who Ms. Gentile says is "built like a cement truck."

"It just goes to show that you can be a middle-aged father, a heavy-duty lawyer, a federal
judge or the prime minister and, still, you can be brought back down to earth with a
ridiculous nickname from your youth," she says.

Ms. Gentile says nicknaming results from the employees' close ties at and away from
work.

"We all like each other. We work closely for eight hours a day, we lunch together, we
hook up to go shopping on weekends, so the use of nicknames is a nice way to treat each
other," says Ms. Gentile, whose own renaming has been the simple DG, for her initials.

David Morelli, vice-president of Cohn & Wolfe's technology group and boss of all those
nicknamed consultants, cheers on their use of the monikers. Mr. Morelli - who, to his
knowledge, has yet to acquire a nickname - says it's a stress reliever when they face tight
deadlines. He also appreciates how the nicknaming has bonded staff and made the office
a more fun place to work.

Nicknaming usually occurs where people work in close quarters and spend lots of time
together, says Sandra Robinson, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University
of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver.

Prof. Robinson says that, on the upside, nicknaming builds cohesion among employees
and can be a source of humour during rough patches. It can also help workers deal with
co-workers or supervisors who are hard to get along with.

When newly hired employees who seem never to get on the boss's good side learn that
their superior is nicknamed Slave Driver or Attila, they realize they are not alone, she
says. "It makes that boss easier to deal with because you understand the context."

Prof. Ng says nicknaming new employees is a time-tested way to help people fit into the
social networks found in most organizations. "Until you earn a nickname, you are not
really considered part of the 'in' group," he says.

He believes nicknaming can be a productivity booster, particularly in organizations where
straight-laced bosses insist employees work according to strict guidelines.

"When workers address each other as Mr. and Mrs. and everything is done by the books,
pet names lighten the atmosphere and warmer relationships develop," he says.


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"As a result, people feel they are doing a job not just for the company but also for a friend
or buddy, and they will put in a little extra effort. In the end, the company wins."

But Ms. Wright says that nicknaming can have negative consequences.

Monikers that some well-intentioned employees may feel are harmless can lead to
negative stereotyping and racial or sexist slurring, she warns.

And she frowns on the practice of nicknaming others - from bosses to co-workers -
behind their backs, especially when it comes to monikers related to body parts or that
mock a person's physical shortcomings, such as Shorty or Fatty. She also dislikes
negative nicknames for bosses, such as Ice Queen or Fire Breathing Dragon.

"Some of these names are borderline aggressive, and can lead to a lack of respect in the
workplace."

There are also other ways it can backfire. While coaching employees at a Toronto
company, she saw teams of workers who had adopted nicknames in an effort to bond. But
they were seen as cliquish by fellow employees. "It promoted internal rivalries in an
unhealthy way."

Mr. Balthazard points out that government legislation and some companies' codes of
conduct consider nicknaming that demeans a person's character a form of workplace
harassment.

A recent ruling by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal proves his point. In May, it ruled in
favour of an Iranian-born man who laid a complaint of discrimination after his co-
workers at a North Vancouver body shop where he was a painter addressed him as Bin
Laden, Mr. Balthazard says.

The tribunal found name-calling by the employees contributed to the man's anger and
was a factor in an outburst that led to his firing. A settlement in the case is now being
negotiated.

At Cohn & Wolfe, workers take their unserious nicknaming seriously. "Nasty names
aren't allowed," Ms. Gentile says.

And when issued good-naturedly, she says that monikers - even ones that might border
on the distasteful - can add an element of fun and frivolity to the workday.

After she had laser surgery on her eyes, Ms. Gentile was, for a while, dubbed Shifty.

But she doesn't mind. It was "all in good fun," she says, "all in the name of helping to
develop a sense of friendship among employees at the company."

*****

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 A knack for nicknaming

 Do

      Use nicknames to create a relaxed atmosphere and build camaraderie in your
      office.
      Use nicknames to foster teamwork - but always keep them light and positive, such
      as the A Team. Avoid cliquish-sounding names like The Gang of Five.
      Use abbreviations, such as Bri for Brian or BC for Brian Clark. But ask the
      recipient first.
      Go with the times. Nicknames that were once acceptable, such as Jughead and
      Stretch, are not acceptable now.
      Ask yourself if you'd like to wear a moniker yourself. If the answer is no, chances
      are others won't like it either.

 Don't

      Resort to nicknames based on negative physical traits. So, Shorty, Bucky and
      Fatty are no-nos. Red or Rusty, for hair colour, may be okay but ask the
      nicknamed person first.
      Use nicknames that are racist, sexist or hostile.
      Substitute a nickname for a hard-to-pronounce name. Learning someone's name
      shows respect.
      Assign a nickname behind someone's back.
      Nickname subordinates, especially with names that could be demoralizing, like
      Junior or The Rookie.
      Let nicknamers continue using a moniker if you find it annoying or a form of
      harassment. Ask users to stop. If that fails, raise your concerns with supervisors,
      employee associations or union representatives and, if necessary, lodge a
      complaint with a human rights body.
      Be the one to ever reveal a nickname assigned to an unaware boss, especially if
      you coined it - unless you see demotion in your future.
      Use nicknames in front of clients and customers. It may suggest a lack of
      professionalism and leave them wondering if they have also been tagged.

Randy Ray




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