The Power of Proper Pronunciation

Applying thoughtful approaches to pronouncing an unfamiliar name can enhance inclusivity and belonging at work.

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Anne Wojcicki, Indra Nooyi, Ginni Rometty, and Oscar Munoz are all distinguished Fortune 500 CEOs with something else in common: Their names are often mispronounced. They’re far from alone; in a poll by Namecoach, a company that embeds audio name pronunciations online, 38% of the respondents reported that they’d had their name mispronounced at work. Similarly, 74% of employees said they had struggled to pronounce people’s names at work, which led some to avoid introducing, talking to, or calling on those colleagues.

While mispronouncing an employee’s name may appear to be innocuous, it comes at a great cost. Proper name pronunciations is an often overlooked, readily attainable, and easily accessible practice to promote inclusion and belonging in the workplace, which may be particularly relevant to international employees or employees of color. Names are central to our identity, often connecting us to our family, culture, and history. Research suggests that proper name pronunciation promotes belonging and psychological safety and, in the team context, fosters team formation, development, and cohesion.1 Our brains become activated when our names are used, and mispronunciation of our names has been shown to induce feelings of alienation.2

If You’re Unsure How to Pronounce a Name

Not knowing how to pronounce someone’s name can be a daunting, stress-inducing situation that is often accompanied by a sense of vulnerability. The worry of accidentally offending someone or being perceived as disrespectful can be a heavy burden to carry. In these moments, it’s crucial to remember that everyone makes mistakes and that the willingness to learn and improve is most important — but it’s imperative not to presume pronunciation or put the onus of correcting your mistakes on others. In recognizing these challenges, we offer the following suggestions.

Ask. Various interactions afford you the opportunity to learn a name’s pronunciation. For example, upon meeting someone, ask how to pronounce their name. Even when the spelling of a name is consistent, its pronunciation can nonetheless vary. For example, Cassandra could be pronounced kuh-SAN-druh or kuh-SAHN-druh, and Xavier could be pronounced ZAY-vee-er or ex-ZAY-vee-er. If you are going to introduce or meet someone whose name you have read but not said aloud before, ask them how to pronounce their name or whether your pronunciation was correct after saying it for the first time. Finally, if you are a leader, communicating the importance of name pronunciation is essential, given that leaders set the tone for their work groups.3 The implicit message behind assuming the pronunciation of a name, or carelessly mispronouncing it, may be that the other person should assimilate or change their name to suit you.

Avoid unwanted nicknames. When you struggle to pronounce a name, do not resort to nicknaming the person without their permission. As a leader or manager, reflect on the potential message you might convey to an employee and their colleagues when using an unwanted nickname. When people sense a lack of effort in getting their name right, they could come to feel overlooked. This, in turn, may have adverse effects on future interactions and performance; research has shown that when employees feel seen, creativity and satisfaction increase while absenteeism rates fall.4 Additionally, using unwanted nicknames may inadvertently create a norm of doing so within your team or organization. Demonstrating care and dedication by actively practicing and remembering names, rather than shifting the responsibility onto individuals to adapt to a name they didn’t choose, request, or receive at birth, is essential for helping employees thrive and feel included.

Practice. As with most things that don’t come naturally to us, practice makes perfect. If you’re unfamiliar with the correct pronunciation of a name, it can be challenging to get it right. This is where practicing can go a long way. Write down the phonetic spelling of the name to help commit it to memory, or use mnemonic devices to help you remember the correct pronunciation. The key here is to keep trying and show respect by making the effort to get it right. Such efforts do not need to be advertised or used as a means of self-promotion.

Own your mistakes, and be open to feedback. When you misspeak, correct yourself and apologize. Again, modeling this behavior will foster a culture wherein employees feel comfortable voicing concerns and providing important feedback — such as how to properly say their name — and they feel welcome and valued. Research suggests that employees do not voice suggestions if they perceive that such efforts are futile.5 Further, you should encourage others to correct you, and react positively when they do; this is particularly important if you hold a position of power in your organization. Showing that you are open to feedback is important to model and will help set the tone for how people respond to being corrected in general. Over time, you will help cultivate a space where everyone feels comfortable speaking up or voicing feedback.

Demonstrating care and dedication by actively practicing and remembering names is essential for helping employees thrive and feel included.

Set an example. When you learn how to pronounce a name properly, be sure to introduce the person using the right pronunciation for others to emulate. Similarly, correct any name mispronunciations, whether or not the person is present, to take the onus off of them. These actions will go a long way in establishing a high-quality relationship with your colleague and building an inclusive culture. If you are involved in planning a corporate event, business meeting, or any other type of gathering, consider providing name tags that include space for the phonetic spelling. Creating the opportunity to learn correct pronunciations and correcting others’ errors will take the burden off your employees.

If Your Name Is Often Mispronounced

For many, the mispronunciation of their name can be challenging and uncomfortable, especially when it happens frequently.6 When others get your name wrong, it can feel alienating, invalidating, or even offensive, given that names are often tied to cultural and familial identity. On the one hand, you want your name to be pronounced correctly. On the other, you may empathize with those trying to say your name, knowing that they might be worried about offending you. This is a delicate balance to maintain. As a result, people with commonly mispronounced names may make the personal choice to opt for a nickname instead. Consider these alternatives.

Share your pronunciation. Make name pronunciation resources widely available. For example, consider adding a phonetic spelling or linking to an audio file of your name pronunciation to your signature line. You can publish these resources in your email signature and on professional platforms, such as LinkedIn or your personal website. Mnemonic devices can serve as fun and effective memory aids for name pronunciation; for example, Bob Iger rhymes with “tiger.”

Correct people. Correcting someone’s pronunciation of your name is a form of self-advocacy, communicating that your name is significant and that you value its proper pronunciation. This act can empower you to create a more inclusive and accurate representation of your identity and empower others to do the same. While correcting others, especially superiors, might feel uncomfortable initially, it is an opportunity for them to learn and for the quality of communication to improve. It’s important to correct others no matter how long you’ve known them or how many times they’ve already used your name. Not addressing an incorrect pronunciation at first does not preclude you from doing so later.

Welcome pronunciation questions. Encouraging questions signifies your willingness to engage in a dialogue that not only aids in the proper pronunciation of your name but also fosters mutual respect. Upon first meeting others, extend a blanket invitation to them to ask for clarification on how to pronounce your name whenever they need to in future interactions. This approach sends a clear message that you value the accuracy of your name and understand that learning to pronounce it correctly might take time.

Address resistance. Dealing with individuals who willfully mispronounce your name can be a frustrating challenge, especially when it involves someone in a leadership role. Addressing these situations with patience is paramount, so process your feelings first. Consider the person and the context in which the mispronunciation occurred to decide whether and how to address the situation. If you are ready, having a one-on-one conversation can be ideal for facilitating a desirable outcome. First, state your concern clearly, highlighting the importance of your name’s correct pronunciation to you. Reiterate the correct pronunciation of your name, offering guidance and assistance as needed. Do not hesitate to seek support from colleagues or other supervisors who can serve as allies.


Thoughtful approaches to name pronunciation can foster inclusivity and belonging in the workplace. With modest effort and attention, organizations can help employees from a variety of backgrounds feel seen and appreciated, fostering a more harmonious and inclusive environment. Ultimately, recognizing and respecting the significance of names will promote a culture of mutual respect and understanding.

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References

1. M.C. Purnell and J. Hughes, “Practicing Cultural Humility by Using Actionable Steps for Improving Name Pronunciation and Use,” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 87, no. 7 (July 2023).

2. D.P. Carmody and M. Lewis, “Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own and Others’ Names,” Brain Research 1116, no. 1 (Oct. 20, 2006): 153-158.

3. R. Dinsdale, “The Role of Leaders in Developing a Positive Culture,” BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education 9, no. 1 (2017): 42-45.

4. S.M.B. Thatcher and L.L. Greer, “Does It Really Matter If You Recognize Who I Am? The Implications of Identity Comprehension for Individuals in Work Teams,” Journal of Management 34, no. 1 (February 2008): 5-24.

5. E.W. Morrison and S.L. Robinson, “When Employees Feel Betrayed: A Model of How Psychological Contract Violation Develops,” The Academy of Management Review 22, no. 1 (January 1997): 226-256.

6. R. Kohli and D.G. Solórzano, “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microagressions and the K-12 Classroom,” Race Ethnicity and Education 15, no. 4 (2012): 441-462.

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