new employee insists we call her “Mrs. ____” even though we all use first names

In this letter, names have been changed for anonymity. A reader writes:

I recently hired a new employee in my 7-person department. I am very excited, as she has a great experience and her references were wonderful. She will be a real asset to the team. She started this week and as I usually do, I took her around and introduced her to everyone as “Catelyn” (as we called her in the interview). At the end of the day, I brought her into my office to see how things were going and if she had any questions. I was slightly taken aback when she said she preferred to be called Mrs. Stark and not Catelyn.

Normally, I am fine with people’s name preferences (e.g., nicknames), but we have a very informal office. Everyone from the receptionist to the CEO are called by their first names here. Her previous employer (whom she was with for over 10 years) had a much more formal workplace and I assume that is the way things were done there. I tried to explain how we do things, but she said it was what she was used to. I told her it’s not the norm but we could try it and see (maybe not the best way to handle it – I was just stumped). She seemed fine with that.

Note that this woman is mid-forties – only a few years older than me – and my team’s ages run from 26 to 54; so it’s not a “respect-your-elders” thing. Aside from this, she’s actually pretty relaxed. Good sense of humor and nice and seems to be fitting in the group.

I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by making her uncomfortable but I do see this as an issue. We deal with outside clients often who know us as casual. It just seems odd to have a meeting where I introduce the group, “Renly, this is my team: Robb, Bran, and Mrs. Stark.” And I worry she will become a sort of joke and I don’t want that at all. Any thoughts on how to approach this without it sounding like an edict?

This is fascinating. And weird and awkward and all the other things I love.

I think the first thing you need to do is to figure out your goal here. Is it just to give her a friendly heads-up about your culture and to warn her that people are likely to find this really strange — but leave it up to her from there? Or do you really need this to end with her going by Catelyn?

That second option might feel too heavy-handed, but I’d argue that when it comes to interacting with clients, this is very much your business … because clients are going to get a very different feel if she insists on being addressed this way. Some clients, particularly younger ones, are going to find that laughable and/or alienating (and/or hear echos of every government bureaucracy they’ve ever dealt with — which is the only time I can recall another professional wanting me to address them this way), and that affects your business.

So it’s an issue about your culture — both internally and the culture you project to clients — and I’d address it that way. For instance: “I thought more about our conversation about names the other day. I want to be honest with you, I think going by Mrs. Stark is going to strike people as odd. We’re all on a first-name basis here, at every level of the organization, and I’m worried that using Mrs. Stark is going to seem out of sync with our culture and even standoffish. Especially with clients, where we deliberately cultivate a warm, friendly tone.”

If she still says she wants to stick with Mrs. Stark, try to find out more about where she’s coming from. You could say something like, “This is new to me. Can you help me understand why you prefer Mrs. Stark, in a context where everyone else is using first names?” It’s possible that you’ll learn something that will cause you to feel differently about this … although I’m having a hard time imagining what that might be.

But ultimately it’s reasonable to say to her, “We do use first names when we’re interacting with clients. Will you be comfortable with that?”

Related:
office insists we refer to higher-ups as Mr. or Ms.

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