Workplace Issues: Call Me Mr., Mrs., or Doctor!

Image by Drazen Zigic on Freepik

By Sheila Ferguson

How you address your co-workers and superiors in the workplace can be a significant issue in organizations big and small. Calling everyone in your workplace by their first name is not always acceptable. It is only correct when others ask to be called by their first names. When people of rank insist upon being called by their first names, you can safely follow that request. Other people who prefer to be referred to as Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Dr. should also get respect. Though you may think such requests are not a big deal, they are. Everyone has an identity, and their formal titles often have personal and historical significance. Just because you think calling everyone by their first name is OK, it’s not always appropriate.  

Respect The Title at All Costs

Giving respect by the use of titles is a “diversity issue.” It is linked to personal identity, gender, race and ethnicity, organizational status, and experiences of prior inequitable or demeaning treatment. Within organizations, using titles is also an effective way of marking rank and status boundaries. The request to have one’s title recognized is a matter of respect and distinction.

Regarding female, minority, and older workers, titles also hold significance. If you have mixed feelings about honoring the titles your co-workers want you to use, take a moment to examine your respect for others. It would help if you were agreeable to that person’s request, as it is not about you. You may make it highly personal and discriminatory whenever you dishonor the request. 

What Offends You About the Use of Titles?

If you are working with persons who require that they be called Mr., Mrs., or Dr., it is important that you comply. They have earned the credentials, and you must examine your resistance to their accomplishments. You may need to examine:

  • Do I feel that titles are stuffy and create a barrier between me and the “titled” individual?
  • Does honoring someone’s advanced degrees make me feel unaccomplished?
  • Am I jealous of the accomplishments of others?
  • Do I think it’s authoritarian for someone to ask to be called by their title?

If you have said yes to any of the above, a corporate diversity and human relations issue is brewing.  Your behavior could be seen as a form of harassment by your offended coworker or superior. Your resistance may mean that you have difficulty conveying respect. It could help if you acknowledged the unique worldview differences between you and others. Your opposition to your co-worker’s polite request may reflect your insecurity or lack of appreciation of the other’s achievements. 

Please Call Me Mister

Men who demand that others refer to them as Mr. are calling for respect. The tendency is common among older and minority men in the workplace occupying low-skilled positions. These men deserve to be treated as valued team members. Though others may view first names as a form of friendliness and social acceptance, it is still offensive.

Absolute Use of the Title: Mrs.

Women who wish to be called Mrs. in the workplace command a level of respect and social stature. The use of the title Mrs. sends a direct message to co-workers and managers that the woman is:

  • To be respected as a wife and mother; and 
  • Unavailable for any exploitation or sexual dalliances with anyone in the workplace.

The title of “Mrs.” creates a tenor of respect and formality.  Many women have had a history of working in low-wage jobs where their first names were used to discount them. Failure to use the titles of Mrs. or Ms. is viewed as disrespect. Note: This type of boundary management in women is common among silent and baby boomer generations. Remember that these women began their careers in the era before legal protections existed against sexual and workplace intimidation, harassment and stalking. The term Mrs. is a shield against disrespect.

Meet the Dr.

In the case of individuals who have earned the coveted title of Dr., linked to the attainment of a Ph.D., Psy.D., MD, DDS, D. Min and other degrees, it is best to respect their titles. Gain clarity about how these individuals want to be addressed. The most common rationales include: 

  • “I worked hard for this degree and under extreme duress.”
  • Only a tiny segment of the population can earn these credentials, and respect is deserved; and
  • Client confidence is heightened when you use their title.

Rules of the Road

Always let your coworkers, colleagues, and health practitioners tell you how they want to be addressed. Always address the person by their title or requested name. If you have been wrong in the past, apologize and take corrective action. Failure to cooperate could result in you being called on the carpet by your supervisor or HR, or asked to participate in a mediation.    

Workplace Etiquette: How to Create a Civil Workplace Paperback – March 7, 2015, by Rebecca Black  (Author), Walker Black (Editor)

Works Well with Others: An Outsider’s Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You – October 6, 2015, by Ross McCammon (Author)