Watch those nicknames: Turning El-Hakem into ‘Hank’ spells bias

You know that ethnic slurs and name-calling have no place in the workplace. But a new court ruling proves that any kind of ethnic intolerance can be punished.

If supervisors insist on Americanizing or shortening an "ethnic" name against that person's objections, they could set up your organization for a Title VII national-origin discrimination lawsuit.

Remind supervisors not to hand out ethnically insensitive nicknames. If you have any doubt that some employees take their given names seriously, consider the following case.

Recent case: When Mamdouh El-Hakem went to work for BJY Inc., the CEO insisted El-Hakem would do better with clients if he took the name "Manny." El-Hakem, who is of Arabic heritage, preferred that the company call him by his given name. The CEO would have none of it. Instead, he consistently referred to El-Hakem as "Manny" at meetings and in e-mails.

El-Hakem then suggested that if the CEO had trouble pronouncing Mamdouh, he could call him by his last name. After that, the CEO took to calling El-Hakem "Hank." That pushed El-Hakem over the edge. He sued, alleging the persistent name changing amounted to a racially hostile environment. A jury agreed, and the 9th Circuit appeals court upheld its decision.

While the nickname was not a racial slur, the court said that by refusing to use El-Hakem's ethnic name, the CEO created a racially hostile work environment. (El-Hakem v. BJY Inc., 03-355514, 9th Cir., 2005)

Final tip: Although generations of immigrants have Anglicized their names in an effort to fit in, El-Hakem apparently was not of like mind. Make sure your supervisors are sensitive to ethnic and racial pride. No legitimate business reason exists for changing names against an employee's objections.