Nix the nicknames or ‘Grandma’ will get even

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

By Mindy Chapman, Esq.

Every workplace has managers who love to hand out nicknames to employees and co-workers. It’s all good fun until an employee in a protected class—age, sex, race, religion, disability, etc.—takes offense.

Case in Point: Jolyn McDonald, 54, worked for 17 years at a Best Buy store in Illinois as a customer service manager. She’d been promoted after an “exceptionally strong performance history” and positive reviews.

One day, the store manager gave McDonald a written warning for failing to adapt to the company’s new business model. The store manager recommended that she step down from her job to spend more time with her grandchildren.

A few months later, a new store manager took over and started calling McDonald “Grandma” in front of other employees. He placed McDonald on a performance improvement plan before he even worked with her.

Soon after, McDonald was told she was being demoted because her staff handled situations poorly. She quit and filed an Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) lawsuit. In court, Best Buy argued that “Grandma” isn’t an age-related nickname because people under 40 could also be grandparents.

Result: The court didn’t buy Best Buy’s argument about “Grandma’s” nickname. It said McDonald was “unquestionably labeled with the moniker because of her age or personal characteristics. … Calling someone ‘Grandma’ does suggest ageism.” (McDonald v. Best Buy Co.)

2 lessons learned

1. Remember the “Pat” rule. If an employee’s name is Patrick or Patricia and they like the nickname “Pat,” then it’s reasonable to call them that. All other nicknames that could have even the perception of being tied to a protected characteristic—age, national origin, race, disability, etc.—must be prohibited in the workplace.

2. Audit your policies. Make sure your harassment, discrimination and retaliation policies prohibit the use of nicknames based on protected characteristics.

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Author: Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial. 

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