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do I have to refuse to use first names because my manager won’t? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I just started with a new organization three months ago. I was hired to lead a newly-formed team. In case it matters, I am the team leader but not the supervisor — there is a vacant supervisor position, and my boss has made it clear she would like me to fill that role, but there are rigid eligibility requirements that I won’t meet for several more months.

I greatly admire my new boss and love working with her. However, she insists on calling everyone by a gendered title plus surname (Ms. Smith, Mr. Jones, etc.). She applies this to every single person, regardless of age or position, and if someone requests that she use their first name she outright refuses (her exact words are “it’s not gonna happen”). She is from an older generation and from the south, so this may be a cultural thing. I will generally address a stranger this way in the workplace, but as soon as they ask me to use their first name, of course I comply.

I don’t feel too strongly, but if I had the choice I’d prefer to be called by my first name, especially by my peers and the team members under me. I have privately told my team that they are welcome to do so and asked how they would like to be addressed. Most said they do not care either way, but two are adamant that they want to be called by their first names. Some others in the organization, including directors far above me, have insisted on first names as well. When out of earshot of my boss, I address people however they are most comfortable.

However, I’m not sure if it’s a bad idea to use first names in front of her. We speak frequently throughout the day, and she usually joins my daily meeting with the team. When she is present, I find myself using her method of address for everyone because I don’t want her to think I lack decorum, especially as a leader. On the other hand, I had a team member reiterate to me again today that she would prefer her first name, and I want to respect her wishes (and everyone’s). Can I freely use first names in front of my boss, or will she find this inappropriate?

As a general rule, you should use the names people have asked you to call them, including in front of your boss. And using Ms. Smith/Mr. Jones will come across as antiquated and stuffy in most workplaces (with a small handful of exceptions where it’s still the norm).

But in reality, you may need to adapt this to fit your boss. I don’t know if she’s going to find your use of first names inappropriate or not — you’d have to ask her that — but it’s certainly possible that she might.

If you’re worried, why not talk to her about it? You could say, “I know you prefer to address people by titles and surnames. I want to respect what people ask me to call them, so I prefer to follow their lead and use their first names if they prefer it. But I wanted to make sure you don’t feel strongly about how I handle that.”

There’s a pretty good chance you’ll hear that she’s well aware that most people around her use first names, and this is simply her own practice and not a mandate for others. But if it is going to bother her, it’s better that you know that. And if that turns out to be the case, you can tell people that up-front so they know where you’re coming from — “I prefer first names too, but Jane prefers we address people more formally, and I’m choosing not to go against that when she’s in the conversation.”

But honestly, I’d probably skip the conversation with your boss and just address people the way they’ve requested. It’s unlikely she’ll be shocked; she’s got to be aware that most people’s norms have evolved on this.

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