Q: My boss is generally lovely to work with. He’s communicative, fair, organized, and a diplomatic leader. But occasionally, he calls me “sweetie” or “love,” which I find extremely annoying. I’ve let it go on way too long, and now I almost flinch when he says it. I know he means well and is a wonderful boss, but I’d prefer that he call me by my name. How can I gently, but firmly, get him to drop the nicknames?
A: There can be many reasons for this kind of behavior in the workplace, and understanding the motivation behind it is an important step in creating a plan to make it stop.
On one side of the equation, the behavior is meant to belittle the recipient, and is ultimately about power and control. These cases call for action that involve people in the organization who bring their own power to the table — like the director of human resources. Conversely, this behavior could be an inability to understand how it could possibly be considered insulting or condescending. It’s simple thoughtlessness — your boss might even see his nicknames as a form of endearment.
It sounds like your situation is closer to the more benign motivation. Given the qualities you have attributed to your boss, it is possible that he might become upset or embarrassed that he hurt you. And those feelings could easily evolve into defensiveness or shutting down. There is no reason to trade one awkward situation for another, so it’s best to use a light touch.
The next time he calls you “sweetie” or “love” — and you are alone with him — try saying something like: “I should have said something a long time ago. I really love working for you and I know you mean that affectionately, but I’d much prefer you use my name.” Using “a long time ago” provides context and gravitas, and “affectionately” signals that you don’t think his motives are malicious.
If he is reasonable and considerate, that should be the end of it, and you may even strengthen your relationship with him. Ideally, he’ll respect the fact you dealt with your situation in an open, supportive, and honest way.
Most good bosses want to be seen as thoughtful leaders, modern in their thinking, smart in how they look at their business, and fair and attentive to their people. Give your boss the benefit of the doubt here and the chance to prove he is all of those things — and more.
Christine Tardio is a trusted advisor and business coach to a dynamic range of women business leaders. She can be reached at thelookinglass.com.
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