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Using insensitive nicknames can spell bias

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Issue: Some supervisors, particularly males, try to bond with employees by giving them nicknames.

Risk: When nicknames are insensitive to a protected class (race, ethnicity, etc.), they could trigger hostile-environment suits.

Action: Remind supervisors not to hand out tactless nicknames. Point to the following case as proof of the danger.

By now, most supervisors know the legal dangers of using ethnic slurs in the workplace. But a new court ruling proves that almost any kind of ethnic intolerance can be punished.

Supervisors who insist on Americanizing or shortening an "ethnic" name against that person's objections will be setting up their organizations for a Title VII national-origin discrimination lawsuit. No legitimate business reason exists for changing employees' names against their objections.

Use the following case to show supervisors the danger of handing out such nicknames:

Case in point: A CEO began referring to sales rep Mamdouh El-Hakem as "Manny" because he thought the employee would do better with clients if he used a less-ethnic name. El-Hakem objected, saying that if the boss couldn't pronounce his first name, he could use his last name. After that, the boss started referring to El-Hakem regularly as "Hank."

That was the last straw. El-Hakem sued, saying the nicknames amounted to a racially hostile environment. A jury agreed. While the nickname wasn't a racial slur, by refusing to use El-Hakem's ethnic name, the boss created a racially hostile work environment. (El-Hakem v. BJY Inc., 03-355514, 9th Cir., 2005)

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