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What Arguing About VP Harris's Name Can Tell Us About Workplace Harassment

Kamala Harris is about to become the most powerful woman in American history, with the previous probably being Nancy Pelosi (or arguably Oprah Winfrey depending on what kinds of power and influence you are talking about). And yet, despite that, there is a nationwide dispute over how she pronounces her name. The two pronunciations sound something like COMMA-luh and Kah-MAH-luh. The former is correct. A lot of people shrug their shoulders and say something like, "Who cares?" They continue to call her by her first name pronounced however they damned well please.

 

Your HR department, your compliance department, and your wallet care. But so does your employee morale. So does your ability to retain good staff.

 

If you're an employer, you should care, and here's why. You should be in the habit of pronouncing people's names the way they want them pronounced. Because the alternative is workplace harassment. The intentional mispronunciation or refusal to try to learn or correctly pronounce a person's name can be seen as a type of harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment. Now, when your name is Cassady and someone calls you Casey, you may not be able to get much, that discrimination is merely based on the fact that you have a name your septuagenarian year old boss can't remember and you may be out of luck, but when your name is "Faiza," "Seo-Hyu," "Rashid," "Cheung," "Ismael," "Avram," or "Ramnakrishna," the case is substantially stronger.


In short, your HR department, your compliance department, and your wallet care. But so does your employee morale. So does your ability to retain good staff.

 

But Kamala Harris, like Hillary Clinton, is referred to by her first name. Why is that? I would argue it's because she's a woman.

 

That said, there's something else going on with Kamala Harris. She's a Vice President being referred to by her first name and only her first name. When you refer to the President-Elect by a single name, if you're the vast majority of America, it's "Biden." Even those of us who have utter contempt for the President, refer to him by his last name "Trump," not usually "Donald." The last President was "Obama," even when Trump was insulting him, he was saying his last name in a goofy voice. The only President I can think of who wasn't regularly referred to by his last name was Bush 43 who was often called by his middle initial, and that was largely because there had been a previous Bush.


But Kamala Harris, like Hillary Clinton, is referred to by her first name. Why is that? I would argue it's because she's a woman. Men are given a certain degree of respect in our society, and one of the measures of that respect is that when they have titles, we refer to them by those titles. Vice-President is one such title. As a short-hand we will often drop the title and simply refer to them as their last name. As a society, we don't think of women as befitting that sort of elevated status. And this is a problem. And it's a problem for employers because you can't behave like that. Employers need to respect their employees earned titles. Because failure to do so can create liability, and it can hurt morale, and it can cost you talent.

 

It makes me contemplate the cost our society is paying.

 

And it makes me wonder how many women might be great political leaders but don't get into the field because they see this sort of disrespect casually thrown about on a regular basis. And it makes me contemplate the cost our society is paying. Don't let your company pay it.


If you want help creating an open and positive work environment or coming up with a DE&I plan, we do that. We also do harassment prevention trainings and help with creating policies, procedures, and performing investigations. Give us a call at (510) 776-4936 or e-mail us at cassady@flatratelaw.com and someone will respond within 24 hours.

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