Freedom to Use a First Name: When proper titles are appropriate

by epi on December 25, 2012

Q: When working in a government office, is it proper to call your superior by his or her first name as long as they are not in an appointed position?

A: Some people think informality makes things easier and less stressful at work.  So they’re surprised when I explain that, in general, informality actually adds to stress at work and can even lead to rude behavior, albeit unintentionally.  Your question is a perfect example of this. Your confusion over how to address a superior causes you to feel stress because you’re wondering what to do.  The rudeness then comes into play when you presume to address your superior by her first name, only to discover later  that this was an unappreciated choice.  In any office, not just a government office, it’s always best to start out addressing your superior by a title plus last name.  If the person prefers to be addressed by her first name, she can and should let you know: “Tom, please call me Sally.”  You should then feel free to respect her wish.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jerry December 26, 2012 at 10:46 am

No, no, no. The answer to this question, like so many in life, is “it depends.” On what does it depend?

For starters, what is the difference between you and your superior? Are you both professionals? Use first names. Are you support staff and is he running the entire agency? Depending on the culture you may use a first name. The best way to determine the answer, based on your specific cirumstances is to ask someone who’s worked there a while about the culture and protocol of the office.

(Seriously, EPI, this was not a hard question. Start with the last name until someone tells you to use the first? Even where you hear others call the boss by the first name? You will eventually lose points for not being able to pick up social clues.)


Jody December 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I agree with part of Jerry’s answer. It depends on the office; when I started a new position I either asked the HR people whether it was first names or Mr./Ms. and last name (if I didn’t already have a sense of the situation from earlier contacts).

As for Jerry’s second paragraph, seriously? I say start off with Mr./Ms. and last name until told otherwise. It’s possible that others call the boss by the first name because they’ve known him/her longer than you, and the boss prefers the last name be used for new hires. I’d rather be too formal at the outset than too informal. It’s easy to loosen up and use first names later.


Jerry December 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm

It’s possible, Jody, that “others call the boss by the first name because they’ve known him/her longer than you.” But Occom’s razor suggests that it’s unlikely. The more likely reason some people would call the boss by last name while others would use a first is different status within the company. (By way of example, what is more likely: new associate calls managing partner “Mr. Smith,” while a secretary calls him “George”? Or new associate calls the managing partner “George,” while the secretary continues to call him “Mr. Smith”? Hint: nine times out of ten, it’s the later.)


Joanna April 2, 2013 at 9:42 am

Chiming in to say that I don’t really think it should matter what the person’s job is — why do many people seem to think that just because a person is support staff, they are somehow “inferior” to the higher-ups? I’d like to see the directors if they didn’t have a support staff running the place while they were out at meetings all day! Everyone should be held to the same title or name, period.


Savannah Warren April 1, 2013 at 5:26 pm

I had to comment here. I went looking for this topic because personally I find it so unprofessional when people address me by my first name. And people do it ALL THE TIME! Your friends and family call you by your first name, but you have an unprofessional relationship with them.

If you are in a professional environment, then you need to act like it. When I go to a restaurant, a doctors office, or start a new job, I find it frustrating when people call me Savannah. If a child knows automatically to say “Mrs. Warren or Mrs. Savannah (I’ll take Mrs. Savannah)”, then what makes adults think they are any different? I have worked a few different jobs and the people who address me by a formal title not only treat me more respectfully, but obviously put more professionalism into their job. Personally, if you are going to address someone by a first name then you have changed the nature of the relationship. That’s fine, but keep professional, you know, professional.


Joanna April 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

First name vs. formal title is a personal choice, and in today’s world, where we are overall a great deal more casual than in previous decades, many seem to prefer simply going by the first name. Thus, I’m sure that’s likely why someone would automatically address you in a similar manner. I doubt they are trying to be disrespectful. All you need to do is say, the next time someone calls you Savannah, “Actually, I prefer Mrs. Warren.”


Savannah Warren April 2, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Your right it is an easy fix. I just always feel odd asking people older than me to use a formal title. Guess it’s time to get over it.


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