Probing Question: What should I call my boss?

drawing of man next to boss’s desk
James Collins

Picture this:

You've just been handed your much-needed morning cappuccino by the blue-smocked barista at the office coffee cart. You pivot for your cubicle, only to find yourself face to face with Barkley Bragg, the company president, who has quietly taken his place next in line. In a flash you're as tense as a cat in a wind tunnel.

"Good morning," he says pleasantly, eyes fixed evenly on yours. It's casual Friday, and you're wearing your jeans and sneakers. He's business as usual in charcoal suit and blue satin tie. He looks like he never sweats.

Your mind scans possible responses.

Hi, Barkley! is just too familiar. That's what the CFO calls him.

Good morning, Mr. Bragg. Now you sound like the guy who fixes the copiers

What else is there??

Not much. So you lower your eyes and slide past him, blurting a lame "How are ya?"

According to David Morand, professor of management at Penn State Harrisburg, scenes like this play out frequently in today's business environment, reflecting a hidden tension in the modern American workplace. Even in organizational cultures that claim to be egalitarian, he says, differences in status still affect personal interactions.

Thus, for example, "Subordinates who feel uncertainty in their relation with a superior... may hesitate to use that individual's first name. And while title-last name is theoretically available as an alternative, this option often tends to be perceived as overly formal or conversationally awkward."

Morand dubs the resulting impasse a conversational "black hole." The typical way out, he says, is via "name avoidance," a.k.a. the path of least resistance. But avoidance may only reinforce feelings of uncertainty and workplace tension.

two large headed cartoon men sit and talk
James Collins

Morand bases his conclusions on a survey he conducted among 74 part-time M.B.A. students about their office conversation patterns, the results of which were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Among his findings are that "name avoidance" is more likely to be used not on one's immediate boss, but on superiors who are two or more rungs distant on the organizational ladder, and most commonly of all on the company CEO. He also found that women are more apt to use this default strategy than men are.

The good news, Morand says, is that once conversation partners are conscious of them, black holes can be avoided simply by facing them. "When employees experience qualms about addressing a superior by his or her first name, they can either muster the courage to use the first name or call their superior by title and last name, thus verbally letting the superior know that they do not feel comfortable with informality. Conversely, a superior who picks up an awkward silence could invite subordinates to 'call me Barkley.'

"Corporations can also resolve the problem," he says, "by having an explicit policy that spells out the appropriate situations for using first names." In fact, many major U.S. corporations, including G.E., U.P.S, and Corning, already have such policies in place. "They reserve the title-last name form for external relations."

David A. Morand, Ph.D., is professor of management at Penn State Harrisburg. He can be reached at dam9@psu.edu. This item was reported by Paul Blaum.

Last Updated June 20, 2005