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What’s in a name: supporting workplace inclusivity through #MyNameIs

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Nyongo’o. Chopin. Kaluuya. Each have their significant impact in the world of art and culture. However, they are names. Names which even with every letter, punctuation, and pronunciation, roll off the tongue (at least in my case).

In a poll presented by Race Equality Matters, 73% of respondents from more than 100 organisations shared that they had their names mispronounced.

According to the 2021 City Mental Health Alliance report, around half of black (52%), east Asian (49%), south Asian (49%) employees who have experienced poor mental health over the last 12 months said that not fitting in at work had been a significant factor. 


The impact of mispronunciation:

How employees change their names to fit in

BAME employees told to 'Westernise' names

Why all employers must learn how to become actively anti-racist


This week marks Race Equality Week, and #MyNameIs is a nationwide campaign supporting it. Led by Race Equality Matters (REM), this campaign seeks to achieve racial equality by challenging bias and prejudice and by fighting against discriminatory behaviours in the workplace, holding both organisations and individuals accountable.

Poignantly, #ActionNotJustWords is Race Equality Week’s theme, and the #MyNameIs campaign advocates for phonetic name spelling, to combat the impacts of microaggressive name mispronunciation. 

 

Microaggressions in the workplace

A microaggression is an implicit form of discrimination and can seem innocent. For example, asking someone “Where are you really from?” or comments such as (one we tend to get a lot outside of work): “You’re very well spoken for a black woman". 

Misspelling, abbreviating, and mispronouncing someone’s name, after being made aware of the correct form and the cultural frame of reference is a microaggression all too familiar for people of colour and black people. 

These microaggressions in the workplace are an unfortunate reality for black people and people of colour and may affect employees’ sense of belonging to a community, a community that they have a right to belong to.

The impact of this can detach an individual from themselves. In some instances, people are changing their names to suit the palate of the aggressor – which should never happen. 

Furthermore, many people of colour and black people say they must hide parts of their identity at work. MHFA England’s My Whole Self campaign calls on organisations to empower employees to bring their whole self to work, whether this is their cultural or ethnic background.

For those who come from different cultural backgrounds and nationalities, their names are an intrinsic part of who they are and form their identity. 

 

A name is a brand

In the literal sense, a name is a brand. A brand provides the individual with an identity, a way in which someone can own their history, lineage and pride that is easily afforded to others. To misspell, mispronounce or dismiss a name, is to dilute one’s sense of self. 

Equally, laughing it off, not seeing it as a big deal, and making excuses about how difficult a name is to pronounce and opting for an easier option is detrimental and a form of implicit bias.

And whilst some of us on the receiving end might be numb or immune to it, constantly having to correct others to pronounce your name correctly is tiring and heightens the already amplified mental health impacts associated with microaggressions.

My name, Ama Afrifa-Tchie, pronounced Ah-ma A-free-fah Chee, is intrinsic to my identity. My surname Afrifa-Tchie is a powerful combination of my maiden name (née Afrifa-Kyei) and my husband's surname. Both names are steeped in rich heritage and legacy from Ghana.  

My name – Chantal, pronounced Shan-tal, a French name by origin, is one that I hold dearly to my being. I can identify with great pride that my surname Senya – pronounced Sen-YAH, boasts a rich culture from my ethnic background in Ghana and Nigeria. A history enriched with colour and regality.

Names are not just names. Our names are attached to a deep routed meaning of heritage, family legacy, history, and faith.  

Our names are often the first thing we share when we meet people. People should be more proactive in learning how to pronounce people's names whether it's their first name or surname and make the effort to learn. 

There are different aids and tools now available via technology, to help people learn and say names phonetically. For example, LinkedIn has a tool where you can add a voice note that pronounces your name so people can hear and learn it correctly.

There are also websites such as nameshouts.com that can help you pronounce names.

There is still a lot more work that can be done to challenge this. However, if in doubt, just ask for the correct pronunciation rather than attempt to say it which often leads to awkward and uncomfortable moments. 

In our Race Equity Impact Report, published last year, we stated that there is “a need to be proactive in seeking to challenge, confront and change our attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours, in our own organisation and across the world.”  

We have continued to deliver our commitments set out in the report and continue to support people of colour and black colleagues with a platform to unapologetically own their names, identities, cultures, and significant contributions to the mental health community. 

To mark Race Equality Week, Mental Health First Aiders England will be joining the #MyNameIs campaign, and we encourage you to do so too, as “we cannot see race equality, without equity”.  

As we celebrate the significance of the week, and proudly champion the #MyNameIs campaign, we leave you with these words from Award Winning Actress Uzo Aduba: “If they can say Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo and Dostoevsky, then they can learn to say Uzoamaka”.

 

Ama Afrifa-Tchie is head of people, wellbeing and equity, and Chantal Senya is D&I champion, at Mental Health First Aid England

 

If you have a pressing D&I problem you can't get to the bottom of, send in your query here where it could be answered by our resident D&I specialist Huma Qazi in the next issue of HR magazine.