One Thing Executives Can Learn From Alex Trebek and Barack Obama

If you're looking for an edge in the war for talent, try starting with some low-hanging fruit: Get their names right.

One of the most significant challenges facing company leaders today is finding and retaining top-performing talent. Access to the best and brightest has never been easier, as we remove geographical barriers for many jobs. However, this ease of access can work against talent strategies as workers have more options than ever before.

The era of the Great Resignation has driven an awakening with workers looking for more than just doing a job. To succeed now and in the future, companies must look at the depth and breadth of their employer brand and ensure that workplaces are not just functional but fair. This means nailing the big and small things to become an employer of choice.

As we pour time, energy, and resources into diversity, equity and inclusion programs, we may miss the details that support employees feeling valued, such as correct name pronunciation. In fact, in our recent study, we found that 44% of candidates had their name mispronounced in an interview. It’s tempting to dismiss an error in the first meeting, but accurately saying someone’s name can subtly communicate that you value the person and their identity. This helps to build rapport and can help you and the candidate shine in the interview.

Name mispronunciation in the workplace can hinder employee collaboration, as well as retention. Our survey showed that:

• 22% said they didn’t introduce someone because they didn’t know how to say their name.

• 16% said they didn’t talk to a coworker out of fear of not knowing how to say their name.

• 13% didn’t call on someone in a meeting because they didn’t know how to pronounce their name.

Even though you may have made an investment in diversity and inclusion, in subtle but impactful ways, you can still make people feel like an ‘other.’

Name mispronunciation is more than awkward; it leads to employees feeling annoyed, disrespected, alienated or unimportant. We forget that our name is a significant component of our sense of self. Your name is more than a label; it is integral to your personal, familial and cultural identity. Will you get the best results from people who feel as if they don’t matter?

For your organization to perform at its best, your employees must be engaged and aligned. Name mispronunciation can create unnecessary barriers and hinder valuable input from your team members. We must intentionally build a culture that does not minimize names. This intentionality has to start from the top.

Our study revealed that it is not just other employees who mispronounce names; 44% of the flubs are attributed to leadership. The top culprits of name mispronunciation are Department Managers (20%), H.R. Managers/Chief Culture Officers (15%) and even CEOs (9%). Make sure that your teams understand the importance of name pronunciation by walking the talk.

Alex Trebek was the game show “Jeopardy” host from 1994 until he died in 2020. On air, he managed to articulate a diversity of names and locations seemingly without effort. The truth is that Trebek did his homework in advance and practiced. This was also the process former President Obama used to ensure that he accurately pronounced names. Leaders of organizations should be no less adept than game show hosts and those who frequently speak with dignitaries across the globe. If you make it count, your teams will too.

Flubbing names can also impact your external customers. Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, said, “A person’s name is to that person the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” Carnegie understood that using someone’s name is a powerful way to show respect and build rapport. Mispronouncing or misspelling a prospect or customer’s name can communicate disrespect or laziness, traits that undermine the trust needed to win and retain customers. Our workforce survey revealed that 41% had their names mispronounced in a customer meeting. And, 10% of survey respondents ruined a big sales opportunity when they mispronounced a prospect’s name.

People instinctively respond to being seen and heard. When they read their name or hear it said aloud by others, it lights up their brain in unique ways that make them more responsive to those who use it.

And when their name is misspelled or mispronounced, the opposite happens: people feel insignificant or ignored and are less likely to engage positively.

Getting names right is vital to forming a strong rapport with your employees and customers. From the critical first impression during a phone interview or sales call and through the life of the relationship, correctly pronouncing a person’s name can profoundly affect their attitude toward you and your business, as well as their behavior. As a result, the correct pronunciation of names translates into better rapport with the people you depend on and better business over time.