10 Best Practices for Using Preferred or Chosen Names at Work

multi-racial group of workers in conference room with PRIDE flag

Using a person's preferred or chosen name at work is important during LGBTQ+ Pride Month and year-round.

Using a person's preferred or chosen name can significantly impact their experience in the workplace.

"You risk disengagement by not using an employee's preferred name or chosen name," says Sara Holquist, director, diversity and corporate social responsibility, ADP. "We are interested in promoting engagement and belonging. Not using a person's preferred or chosen name can create disengagement and compromise their sense of belonging to their team and organization."

What is a preferred or chosen name?

A preferred or chosen name is the name a person wants or has elected to be called. A preferred or chosen name is not a person's legal name. For example, a man whose legal name is "Robert" may wish to go by his preferred name, "Bob." When a transgender or non-binary person selects a name that affirms their gender identity, that new name is usually called a chosen name. For example, a transgender woman named "James" at birth may select "Allison" as her chosen name. Regardless of gender identity, anyone can have a preferred or chosen name.

Why do people use preferred or chosen names?

People use preferred or chosen names for various reasons. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of personal preference. For example, your co-worker Bob prefers "Bob" more than his legal name, "Robert." Bob's parents could've also given him the name early in his life. And as previously mentioned, a transgender or non-binary person may use a preferred or chosen name to affirm their gender identity. Reasons for having a preferred or chosen name are personal and private to some.

You probably already use preferred or chosen names

You may know a Richard who you call "Dick"; a William who you call "Bill"; a Margaret who you call "Peggy"; and so on. Or perhaps you know a transgender or non-binary person who once went by their birth name but now goes by a different, chosen name, which they may or may not have legally adopted. You may not even know a person's legal name because they've only used their preferred or chosen name since you met them, or perhaps you know somebody who legally changed their name and asked people to start using it. Regardless, it's always a good best practice to address everyone by the name they want or have elected to be called.

Now that we have the basics covered, let's discuss using preferred or chosen names in the workplace.

10 best practices for using preferred or chosen names at work

1. Ask if you're unsure

Sometimes, we're in situations where different names are being used, and we aren't sure which to use. For example, you may have seen one name for a person on a document but have heard or seen others calling that person by a different name or even observed that person writing or referring to themselves by a different name. When you don't know which name to use, you don't have to guess which is correct. It's okay to ask the person which name they use. You can say to them, "I want to be sure I'm respectful. What name do you prefer to be called?" Being open about your desire to be kind and courteous is key.

2. Leave room for mistakes

Mistakes happen. Imperfection is expected while adjusting to a preferred or chosen name. Respectful acknowledgment and acceptance should come first when someone asks to be addressed by a new name, followed by a grace or adjustment period. Adjusting to using a new name doesn't always happen instantly. How long the adjustment takes may differ by person and familiarity with the person whose name has changed. In other words, some people can remember the new name and start using it immediately, while others may need more time to get it right, especially if they've known the person by their former name for a long time. Be kind and understand the difference between an honest mistake and disrespect.

3. Practice if you're having trouble

Even when we try our hardest to use a person's preferred or chosen name, we may still have trouble getting it right. A mistake here and there along the way is to be expected, but after a reasonable grace or adjustment period, name errors can be perceived as inappropriate. Holquist recommends practicing using the correct name if you're having trouble.

"Practicing becoming familiar with someone's preferred or chosen name, and not only that, having systematic ways to become familiar with it, really helps," Holquist says, adding that she has her own practices for remembering. "Consider developing a personalized, intentional practice that can help you start using a person's new name. Even better, consider how you can make it a habit to ask at the outset, 'What name would you like me to use when addressing you?'" It won't happen overnight, but the more you do it, the more likely it will become a habit."

4. Think before you joke

Jokes can be great at dispelling awkwardness and establishing a sense of camaraderie. But there's a time and a place. Sometimes, when we make mistakes around others, we might joke about those mistakes or laugh them off. This tendency can appear in self-deprecating remarks when addressing someone by the incorrect name in front of peers. For example, if we address a person by the incorrect name in a packed meeting but catch ourselves in the moment, we might laugh about it and say, "Oh, that's my mistake, Dana with the two names! You know I didn't mean it! I'll do better next time." While this remark may seem harmless and inoffensive to some, it can minimize and trivialize a crucial part of a person's identity — their name. Consider instead, "Oh, that's my mistake, Dana! Please forgive me. I'll do better next time."

5. Suggest, create or revise a policy

A policy explaining your organization's position on using employees' preferred or chosen names can be a wise choice. This policy can answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) about preferred or chosen names, explain HR's stance and establish an official process for addressing serious matters related to not using preferred or chosen names. Additionally, if an existing policy broadly requires the usage of employees' legal names in all instances, consider revising it to make it more accommodating.

For more on policy considerations in this area, check out Foster an Inclusive Workplace for Transgender Talent by Creating a Preferred Name Policy.

6. Understand legal-name requirements

Usually, an employee's general work records can be changed to reflect their preferred or chosen name. But know that some documents still require a legal name. For example, Form W-2 by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires a legal name. Other payroll and tax documents and insurance and retirement documents may also need a legal name. Contact a compliance expert first if you have questions or concerns about legal-name usage on official documents.

"You might wonder, 'Why even provide your legal name if everyone's going to call me by my preferred or chosen name? Why even put it into the HR software?'" Holquist says. "Well, HR systems are often the systems of record for legal reporting. It's important that the HR system and HR organization collect legal names, for usage where required, and preferred or chosen names, for all purposes where legal names aren't needed."

7. Lead by example

Leaders who openly support employees with preferred or chosen names communicate to others how these employees should be treated — that is, with kindness, dignity and respect. Using the preferred or chosen name and asking clarifying questions tactfully and without shame in front of others can set a positive example and reinforce a work culture of inclusion and belonging.

"I always strive to use a person's preferred or chosen name and hope that my actions encourage others to do the same," says Lacey Ross-Prouty, co-chair of ADP's LGBTQ+ Pride Business Resource Group (BRG). "If I use the incorrect name, I correct myself, whether I'm having a one-on-one meeting with the person or in front of others. Often, people want to know that we as leaders will issue corrections and strive to do the right thing. It shows that we're putting forth effort and have our colleagues' backs, no matter what."

For more on leading by example in this area, read the United States Department of Labor's (DOL's) gender identity policies.

8. Offer or ask leadership for help

Leaders can work directly with an employee to assist them with the work-related adoption of a preferred or chosen name. Additionally, leaders don't have to stand idly by if a preferred or chosen name isn't being used. They can talk to employees about providing any needed support.

"Leaders can ask how they can help convey the change if a change is to occur," Holquist says. "Additionally, the person could ask their leader or a very trusted colleague to convey the new name or even issue some gentle corrections. The question could be, 'If you hear anyone still using 'Michael,' could you help me with that and gently remind them to call me 'Michaela' from now on?' Don't be afraid to call upon your advocates."

9. Follow the Golden Rule

The Golden Rule may feel clichéd, but its message rings true: Treat others as you would want to be treated. Always prioritize empathy and compassion over cruelty and judgment. Don't attack, criticize or disparage things you may not understand or feel comfortable with. Ask yourself: "If I or a close friend or loved one had a preferred or chosen name, would I want others to respect my or their wishes and make every effort to use the name?" Regularly remind yourself to follow the Golden Rule — print it out and pin it if you'd like — and encourage others to follow it as well.

10. Explore ways to amplify usage

Names appear on various work-related communication channels. Using software that allows for preferred or chosen names can help take the pressure off employees who feel like they must announce or discuss their names or other aspects of their identity. This feature would allow the employee to voluntarily enter their preferred or chosen name for sharing with the appropriate parties, such as managers, colleagues and practitioners of HR, payroll and benefits. Consider whether the software you're using has this capability.

"It is helpful to allow an employee to indicate their preferred or chosen name systematically," Holquist says. "It's important for the same reason that having a systematic way to convey pronouns is important. If someone's still getting used to their chosen name or is nervous about how their colleagues might perceive it, the pressure is taken off the employee to share, explain and feel like they must do something special just to be referred to correctly. If there are ways that the name can be made available to colleagues, everyone can be easily informed and convey the simple respect of using the employee's preferred or chosen name."

Curious about pronouns and other LGBTQ+ best practices? Check out these related articles:

For more information on ADP's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and resources that can help your organization do and be its best, visit ADP's DE&I Resource Hub.