The other day during workout class, I made a comment that my arms looked a little jiggly. And then it began, my new nickname: Jiggly.

What a joy to have that as a nickname.

At gym class, there is nothing illegal about nicknames or terms of endearment. However, at work, the identification of people by anything other than their names can lead to an unpleasant work environment, and even a lawsuit.

The use of the nickname alone usually does not result in successful litigation. It’s the nickname coupled with other actions that lead a jury to believe that the individual or organization most likely engaged in the actions that led to a hostile environment.

Even where the conduct doesn’t create a legally actionable hostile work environment, it can certainly cost the organization in reputation, embarrassment, morale and even claims of retaliation.

For example, Regina Clemmer, who worked for the court system in Illinois, sued one of the judges who she said made inappropriate comments to her, including calling her “honey” or “dear” approximately 20 to 25 times, in addition to telling her she was “beautiful,” “look[ed] great,” or looked “good,” the same number of times.

In reviewing the case, the court held the judge’s conduct was “regrettable and highly unprofessional,” but the conduct did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment under Title VII, a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

She was able to proceed on her retaliation complaint, however.

The question for employers to ask is, regardless of legal risk, does the organization want to promote “regrettable and highly unprofessional” conduct in the workplace?

The list of inappropriate name calling and nicknames is endless.

I once investigated a case of a diabetic who everyone referred to as “Sugar.” While those I interviewed claimed that it was Sugar himself who came up with the nickname, now that Sugar was being disciplined for performance, suddenly the nickname was offensive to him.

Twenty-two years of employment law has taught me that nicknames are funny until they aren’t, and then they are not.

More recently, Stephen Farina, who is gay, sued his employer complaining that his supervisor referred to him as a “fag” in addition to other comments.

I’ve read plenty of examples of co-workers who are either hesitant to call someone a preferred name other than the person’s first or middle name (for instance, a guy named David asks to be called his nickname “Frog”) to those who just make up names for people, such as Gonzo, Spaz, Gunny, Queenie, Cinderella, Princess, Whitey, Shorty, and the like.

There are several reasons to prohibit nicknames, terms of endearment and name calling. Ultimately, no nickname or term of endearment is appropriate at work.

First, it’s condescending and demeaning to use a nickname or term of endearment. When someone calls another “honey, “sweetie” or “baby,” that person is relaying a level of disrespect.

If you wouldn’t call your CEO that name, don’t say it to or about your colleagues.

In addition, nicknames and terms of endearment are too familiar and unprofessional.

When I talk about terms of endearment in training, usually I hear it’s the women who are the most guilty.

Employers should have no double standards. It is equally inappropriate for a female to call someone “dear” as it is a male. Expectations should be universally applied.

Nicknames in general usually are used to tease someone or make fun of them.

In the workplace, they simply are a holdover of the teasing by immature teenagers. Sadly the person giving the nickname will probably view it as amusing or an expression of appropriate affection.

The recipient will smile at your face, while feeling demeaned and humiliated.

Nicknames, name calling and terms of endearment could lead to a claim of harassment.

I’ve never had to conduct an investigation because someone called a co-worker by that person’s real name.

Employers should avoid waiting for something to be legally actionable before putting an end to unprofessional conduct.

Instead, employers should implement a robust code of conduct outlining the employer’s expectations of workplace conduct and communications, and implement a zero tolerance for violations of the employer’s standards.

Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC. She specializes in practical work law solutions and provides advice, training and investigations to organizations in the public and private sectors. She can be reached at kmichael@karenmichaelconsulting.com. This column is offered as general information and is not intended to serve as legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice, nor does it form any client-attorney relationship.

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