office insists we refer to higher-ups as Mr. or Ms.

A reader writes:

I work in a medium-sized office in a huge government organization. At a recent staff meeting, my supervisor told our team of four that we were to start referring to senior leaders in our office by their titles and/or last names in all email and formal correspondence and when talking to anyone outside our immediate office. In other words, my boss’s boss should be referred to as “Ms. Peterson” or “(Title) Peterson.”  I will be referred to as “Beth.” It appears that they generally intend SES-level employees to be “titled,” and in practice the titles are now bleeding over into the highest-ranked GS-level employees as well.

I find this practice insulting, demeaning, and demoralizing. The explanation for the new practice was that people outside of our office do not know that someone is “important” if everyone in our office refers to them by their first names in communications, meetings, etc. Some external organizations we work with are very conscious of “rank” and, apparently, of titles. I understand this is an issue of culture. Many of the employees in my office – and most of the Senior Executive Service (SES) – are former military. But this is a civilian organization.

I don’t care what someone’s position is. I offer the same professional courtesy to the highest leadership in my office that I offer to my “lowly” colleagues. And respect should be earned by actions, not conferred by title. I made my feelings clear to my boss. She was sympathetic, though I suspect she thinks my reaction is quaint and my outrage misplaced. I probably don’t stand a chance of changing this policy, but I feel I have a legitimate issue and the responsibility to raise it.

Am I overreacting here? Does this happen in other organizations? Should I just take a deep breath, roll my eyes, and start calling everyone in my office by their last names? I know I have a tendency to stand on principle long past the point where it does me any good. However, I am so very turned off by this development that I feel angry and resentful every time I see / hear it happen.

Ick. It’s silly, yes. And their explanation that people outside your office won’t know who is important and who isn’t is even sillier. And perhaps silliest of all is deciding to switch to it after what I assume is years of not operating that way.

But this is, apparently, their culture, or at least the culture they now aspire to.

Personally, I’m not sure I could work somewhere where I was supposed to refer to some colleagues as “Ms. (whoever).” It’s just too far afield from the culture I want to be in.

But this is apparently the culture of your office. You’ve registered an objection and been told it’s not going to change. Now you need to decide if this is still somewhere you want to keep working. It’s your prerogative to decide that it’s not for you and leave … but otherwise I think you need to suck it up and deal. Otherwise you’re going to become known as someone who wouldn’t let go of an issue that most people might roll their eyes at but won’t see as a huge moral problem. That’s not going to be helpful for you in your career — including once you move on, because reputation follows you. It’s also not going to help you the next time you want to take a stand on something in your workplace — maybe something with a bigger impact than this — because you’ll be dismissed as the one who’s always complaining about something.

So either decide this isn’t a culture you like and leave, or stay and save your outrage for times where it’ll have a bigger pay-off.

By the way, if what you’re most angered by is the division between those who have been deemed to deserve this dubious mark of respect and those who haven’t, you could certainly start applying this practice to everyone, not just those of a certain rank. (Although that might just increase the number of times you feel silly for doing it at all — it would for me.)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 124 comments… read them below }

  1. Ellie H.*

    I think applying the practice to everyone is actually a great idea. I would do that if I were in the OP’s position. Like her, I would be intensely bothered by it though (maybe beyond practicality).

    1. Mike C.*

      This!! Not only does is give the plausible deniability of “I’m trying to treat all of my peers with respect”, but it again shades the line between the “important” and “non-important” people in your office.

      In this way it gets so overused that it will lose meaning.

      1. BC*

        Totally agree. I’d have to work really hard to keep the sarcasm from my tone, but still. Worth it!

      2. Anonymous*

        An alternative would be to start addressing everyone as directed in all communication – both in the ‘external’ ones desired, and in all internal ones (written and verbal). Why? Because you want to make it a habit, so that you don’t accidently break policy in external communications. If your fellow lower-downs were of the same mind, I suspect that this could be devastatingly effective in getting the rules rescinded (I believe U. S. Grant said something to similar effect).

      3. Beth*

        Oh, this is exactly what I was thinking! I would just call everyone ‘Ms. Nelson’ or ‘Mr. Smith’ and do it all the time so I wouldn’t forget.

        I agree that it’s silly and it would totally bother me, too. I work for a very ‘chain of command’ style org, and it’s taken me some trial and error to get used to, but I had to make the decision that I like the job and co-workers enough to deal with it. If that’s not the case, I’d look for another workplace.

        1. Susan*

          My thoughts exactly — that I would use the Mr./Ms. title in a blanket fashion. It may provide you a personal outlet for satisfaction, you may see the overall respect for “lowly” employees (as you termed it) change, and as Anonymous noted above, you have a perfect blanket reason for using that method.

    2. From Michigan*

      Good idea: do it for everybody, and don’t be bothered by it. Additionally, you can introduce yourself as “Mrs. OP”. I’ve often done this with people who insist on being called by a particular title. You can say almost anything if you do it politely.

      On a side note, I may be one of the few who thinks a return Mr./Mrs./Ms. might bring us more civility. :)

      1. fposte*

        Nah, I’m with you on that. I don’t think formality is a dirty word, but then I’m the one who wants to wear a tiara to work.

        1. Jamie*

          Tiaras. Fposte if I could get you elected Benevolent Dictator in charge of all workplaces I would.

          I want to work in a world where someone who sees the importance of tiaras makes the rules.

        2. Susan*

          I always knew I wanted to be friends with you after reading all your posts…the tiara comment sealed it. Mine’s in my closet right next to all my shoes, taunting me with its sparkles every day :)

    3. GeekChic*

      I agree with this. Lo these many decades ago, I used to teach high school. At one school I was told that students could not address me by my first name (my preference) so I addressed all students as Mr. or Ms. [Last Name] (just like they had to address me).

      The students found it hilarious and I made my point while still obeying the rule.

        1. Laura M.*

          lol ya my high school required students to call teachers Mr. or Mrs. whoever, but teachers who didn’t like it would band together and drastically over use it. Maybe the OP could see if any other colleagues feel this way and make a point of redundantly refering to each other by their title multiple times per conversation.

        2. Long Time Admin*

          Do you remember the movie “To Sir With Love”? The teacher called every student “Miss” and Mister”. It was the first respectful address most of those kids ever had in their entire lives. And it made a difference.

          It was a serious jolt for me when I first started working, and I had to call people MY PARENTS’ AGE by their first names!

          1. Snippet*

            Yes!! I had the same problem when I started working! Calling men and women who were the same age (or older) than my parents by their first name was so awkward! It took a while to get used to.

        3. LP*

          Wait, are you guys saying that in US schools, students refer to teachers by their first name?

          I’m in Australia and all teachers are Mr/Mrs/Miss Last Name. Every primary and high school (though not so much Universities etc) has this as standard. A teacher wouldn’t be allowed to let their students call them by first name.

          1. Anonymous*

            I’m not aware of first name address in US schools, neither when I was in school, nor do my children address their teachers by their first names. Perhaps it’s a regional or personal preference.

          2. Laura L*

            Not at all in elementary, middle, or high schools. Well, maybe at some ritzier private high schools or schools with different philosophies towards learning. But in your standard school, you address the teacher as Mr/Miss/Ms/Mrs.

            In college is where it differs. I went to a small liberal arts college and many professors preferred to be called by their first names. Not all of them, though.

            Weirdly, when I did my master’s almost all of the professor’s preferred to be called Dr. so-and-so.

          3. Emily*

            The US is so huge it’s hard to generalize across the country, but I don’t think it’s super common. At my high school none of the teachers went by their first names, but I also have this sense that if one of them had wanted to it would have been OK. The ‘cool’ teachers were always addressed by their initial instead of their name – Mr. M instead of Mr. Martin, etc. I think it is probably the case that most high school teachers (though certainly not all) prefer to keep a bit of hierarchy between them and their students.

      1. Sophie*

        On a side note, at primary and high schools here it is standard and universal that students call teachers and support staff “Mrs. Smith”, “Mr. Apple” etc. When I finished uni and went into the work place it was very weird for me to start calling my bosses, who were about the same ages as my former school teachers, by their first name.

        1. Liz in a Library*

          That’s funny…I have that problem with my students. I always make a point to introduce myself as just Liz, but I cannot get them to call me by my first name. Ms. LastName is just so formal, compounded by the fact that my students are all adults… A good chunk of them now call me Ms. Liz, which is still weirdly formal.

          One of the most liberating moments for me in grad school was the first professor to say, “We are going to be colleagues in this field much longer than you will be my students. Start calling me by my first name.”

          1. JT*

            I can’t call a teacher by a first name. Not even a professor that was younger than me where she asked me to. The closest I could get was just last name w/o professor before it.

            And frankly, I don’t really agree on the “colleagues” thing. Maybe after the student finishes class – that’s a sign of achievement and having been together for long.

            That said, I think the OP should wait and see if this catches on. If it does, do it for everyone.

      2. jmkenrick*

        That’s awesome. I used to wish teachers did this, becuase I thought it would make school more like Hogwarts.

      3. Anonymous*

        A teacher at my high school got in trouble for telling the students to call him by his first name.

        In college, I had a professor tell us to call her “Dr. Surname” because she earned her Ph.D. and deserved to be rightfully called by that title.

        In the academic setting, even on college level, I do believe in saying “Mr./Mrs./Professor/Dr.” because it is a sign of respect. While on the college and beyond, we start to become more like colleagues with the professors, they are still the ones who are the experts in the field (supposedly so don’t jump on me with that) and are teaching the students. There’s a line there. I still don’t feel comfortable calling some of my former professors by their first names. Even teachers from elementary school I can’t. And if they want me to now that I’m out of school, they can tell me.

        1. GeekChic*

          I understand the respect idea (I call people sir or ma’am until directed otherwise when I first meet someone). My feeling as a teacher was that my students also deserved respect so I wanted them to address me the same way that I addressed them (and vice versa).

          Parents found it “odd but charming” (to quote one of them).

        1. Piper*

          Yeah, in high school, everyone was Mr./Mrs./Miss. I still refer to my high school teachers with a formal title. In college, most professors told us to call them by their first names. There were some with PhD’s who told us to call them Dr. + their first name, so Dr. Steve, or whatever. It was less formal, but still put their title out there.

          Also, I used to work for a German-owned company and while everyone on the US side of things referred to all coworkers by their first names, whenever we went over to Germany, everyone had a formal title (no matter where in the career ranking they feel), so it was “Mr. Schmidt” and such.

    4. Anonymous*

      Oh dear Lord. The military has been doing this for centuries – it is a common courtesy and respectful – they earned those titles… get over yourself.

      1. Anonymous*

        Yes, you do respect a title – not the actions. I hate Obama – I think he’s the worst president ever (my opinion) BUT I still respect his TITLE but not the person…

        Enough said.

      2. office person*

        Agreed. It is not that big of a deal. I get letters, emails with Ms…. all the time. This is business and in many cases more formality is needed. And also, if someone is writting let’s say a cover letter do you address it to ” Joe ” or is it Dear Mr. Shmoe?. Deciding for yourself the formality of the letter? I don’t get the rebellion of the OP on this issue.

      3. OP*

        I don’t think the military analogy holds here; there are reasons way outside of common courtesy and respect that military hierarchy is so formalized. Again, I believe *everyone* is entitled to common courtesy and respect. I earned my position, too. Designating certain people as “important” (and therefore worthy of a title) implies that others are “not important.” This is what bothers me.

    5. OP*

      I’m leaning toward going this route. I just don’t know if I can do it with a straight face and even tone. Although, actually, I don’t know if I can call the “important” people by their last names with a straight face and even tone, either! I’ve literally been avoiding calling anyone by name. There have already been some meetings where this has started to play out. It’s hilarious. Half the people have adopted the convention, and half have not. Some leaders are getting the title all of the time, some are getting it some of the time.

  2. Katie*

    I used to work a high end hotel where we called the hotel GM by his last name. I thought it was silly too – but again, like AAM said, this was the culture, and I had to choose to accept it or not.

  3. majigail*

    Not my culture either, but it seems reasonable in a government setting. Additionally, this request is just in formal and written communications, not everyday around the office talk. I’d get over it and wait for it to change over time.

    1. majigail*

      Just realized that get over it sounded a little harsh… what I meant was more of a don’t sweat the small stuff.

      1. Anonymous*

        I agree. It doesn’t sound demoralizing to me. The people that they are referring to are senior people who have authority, right? And they are not asking you to always call them Mr. or Mrs., but just when talking to someone else about them or in correspondence? Is that correct? If that’s the case and you can call them “Jane” or “Joe” in everyday office conversation, I don’t see what the big deal is. Of course I am in the South, so that is pretty much standard around here.

    2. Vicki*

      But it’s going to be difficult to remember. “Oh, wait, is there a client within earshot? Than I guess you’re Ms. Jones, not Harriet.”

      If you have to play the game, play it the whole way.

      1. fposte*

        Is it that tough, though? It’s the same thing parents have done for ages. “That’s your mother coming home. Hi, Beth!”

      2. OP*

        Vicki, it has proven to be difficult to remember and/or track who is in the room. I’ve seen people hesitate and look around before saying someone’s name. I think you’re right – the only way to work it is to go all in.

  4. Chris*

    Is this the VA? With all the SES former military? My brother is a G14 in the VA and former military. He’s forever telling stories about military style chain of command stupidity that eeks its way into the VA. One of his people on his team – enlisted military – insists on calling him “sir.” He reminds them they are civilians and the “sir” thing makes ’em both look like meatheads….but to no avail.
    Do whay my brother does….keep a full pension countdown calendar that updates your defind benefit amount bi-annually. Its worth the crap in the end. Keepnsaying it over and over.

    1. Craig*

      My wife works for the VA. During the last election cycle a Congresswoman came to the VA on a Saturday. Management required all of the special project people to come in, supposedly to show off.

      Instead they were ignored during the tour, then called down to a banquet room. The managers and the Congresswoman’s people sat down, the VA staff were required to stand by the wall while the “important” people ate.

      There are amazing people working for the government, unfortunately management attracts the rest.

      1. Steve G*

        they had to do WHAT at the VA? Oh lord, that is nuts. I am a food lover and sure I would have stepped away from the wall to grab at an hour devour and caused a problem that way..

      2. Anonymouse*

        This is very enlightening. In my long and vaunted career, I have worked with soooo many gov’t agencies. By FAR the VA folks are the most depressed, beat-down people I have ever met. During meetings, one fairly expects to hear the gingerly snap of a cyanide capsule being bitten.

    2. Anonymous*

      Wow – that is downright insulting to many!

      As a veteran – your little post is an absolute joke! Using the term “sir” is an issue of respect – not military standard.

      This chain of command “stupidity” that you ignorantly speak of – works. It works in many governments and businesses. Educate yourself and don’t use words like “stupid” b/c it makes YOU look exactly like that.

      1. Anonymous*

        As a currently serving military member, I can assure you that chain-of-command-stupidity does indeed exist. Not all of it, no, and a great deal is valuable, but there are those practices which make things difficult.

        If I need something signed by the commander, I must route it through six people before it reaches her. Of the 7 total, about 3 of them really need to see it, and the other 4 must be respected (or not slighted). This is not a quick process.

        1. Anonymous*

          Yes but you won’t always be the lowest ranking person – and any entry level employee at any job needs lots of approvals prior to anything.

          Not only am I the veteran but my husband is active duty, too, and he does deal with all this that you talk of.

          So, no, not stupid at all.

          If you don’t like – do as AAM said and quit.

      2. Vixen*

        As a civilian, there’s something a bit awe-inspiring about certain types of military personnel. Even if they’re retired. Working at a defense contracting corporation you’ve all heard of – an Admiral came to a meeting and everyone whispered about it and was on best behavior. All civilians, and a facility so large the chances of him being on our floor were close to nil but hey, it’s an Admiral. I don’t have he diplomacy or dedication to get to that level so I’m going to respect those who do.

        But to the OP, I hear you. “Important” is not the way to choose how to address someone.

  5. Katie*

    I could understand if it were requested that everyone call each other “Mr.” and “Mrs./Ms.”, because honestly, that’s just being polite, even if it is a little antiquated. However, I don’t understand the argument that only “important” people get to be called by their formal titles. Even in the military, EVERYONE is called by their formal title, not just the “important” folk.

    Honestly, this reminds me more of a master/slave or master/maid relationship, and it’s INCREDIBLY creepy. Maybe this is more striking to me because I’m Southern. There’s a long history in the South of white people refusing to call people of color by their titles and last names, even though they would expect a person to call them by their title and last name, and I can’t help but think of this history in this situation.

    At the very least, this is just bad manners. Even in the 60s, a CEO would still call his secretary “Miss Such-n-such.” This is not how you conduct business if you’re looking to be more formal and polite. This is about making it clear that some people in the workplace are inferior, and that’s just…not cool at all to me. I’d register a complaint, call EVERYONE by their formal title and last name, and start looking for another place to work. I couldn’t work for people who viewed some of their workers in this way.

    1. Anonymous*

      Your analysis of the slave master thing is exactly how I felt when I worked in a office where the big boss was Mr. XXXX and the rest of us, even the senior managers, went by our first names. One day Mr. XXXX called me on the phone from outside the office, and said “this is Bob” and I said “who?”. He was not impressed. (He also thought he would lose weight if he had a Slim Fast shake for his 11AM and 3PM snacks, in addition to his regular meals. He never figured out that the shakes are supposed to be INSTEAD of the meals.)

    2. Lauren*

      A long history? Yeah, maybe. Key word– history. I’ve never heard anyone do that in my lifetime. Most of my school teachers called their pupils and parents, Mr. and Ms. Surname. They certainly didn’t differentiate between races. I’ve never heard anyone do so in the 4 workplaces I’ve been in. In fact, one of my bosses was an 81 year old black woman from Georgia. I called her Dr. Surname out of respect for her age and position. Not because I had to but because it was polite.

      I think the policy is silly, but I sincerely doubt it is based on race. It also isn’t really comparable to master/slave. Workplaces aren’t a stagnant hierarchy. After all, these positions are earned not bestowed. You could start as Bob and end up as Mr. Surname!

    3. OP*

      Katie, your comment struck a chord with me. I am from the South, and I did grow up seeing this first name/last name issue played out between people of different races (just as you described) AND people of different classes. I wonder how much of the “creepy” (great word) vibe this gives me plays into that.

  6. Anonymous*

    I’m willing to bet you are just going to start calling everyone by their last name…for example, at first you’ll say “Mr. Anderson” but down the road it’ll just be “Anderson.” You know how school kids do that.

    Truthfully, if this is the worst thing, then you have it pretty good. If you are the only one who is complaining, then perhaps you need to reevaluate the situation and wonder why it is only you. Sounds harsh, probably, but instead of being irate, I personally believe I would just think it was stupid/silly but move on.

    1. Mike C.*

      How about the managers quit making stupid rules and treat their employees like the adults they hired? If it’s such a trivial manner, then why not go without?

        1. Mike C.*

          Whatever happened to “effective management” or “respecting your employees”? Treating them like children by demanding to be addressed by their title is petty and harmful to the business at large.

          If these guys need to have their egos stroked, they need to go elsewhere.

          1. Anonymous*

            Look. I don’t know why you have picked me out of the crowd, but I am not the only one who has said that this is a trivial matter. Even AAM has leaned towards that realm when she said that the OP has registered a complaint, they heard her, they aren’t change, so it’s up to the OP to react. So what is she going to do? Keep making waves or go with the flow until someone comes to their senses?

            Are you dealing with something at work that you need to vent about?

  7. Joey*

    The only time I’ve seen something similar are at law enforcement organizations. And thats pretty much standard.

    1. fposte*

      I think it happens in the medical world a fair bit too–it’s Beth and Jim the nurses and Dr. Whosis the doctor.

      1. Anonymous*

        I work in a not-for-profit benefiting people suffering with a devastating disease, and my understanding of this dynamic is that Doctors are meant to be seen as knowledgable and professional, which is partly enforced by referring to them as “Dr. Whosis”. Patients only see doctors every once in a while during hospital during hospital stays, and most of the more routine procedures (like drawing blood, taking temperature etc.)

        Nurses are usually seen more often then doctors and are viewed as more personable. Patients usually feel more comfortable approaching a nurse then a doctor with their non-urgent problems. Nurses also tend to have more time (or in most cases, make more time) to chat with patients and get to know them.

        From my experience working from the social side of patients, they prefer to view their doctor has a hardened professional scientiest, and their nurse as the friendly person they can approach easily.


        1. Anonymous*

          they prefer to view their doctor has a hardened professional scientiest

          Take your patients to see some medical students. It will disabuse them of that notion rapidly.

        2. fposte*

          I don’t think it’s happened with anything like that degree of thought, to be honest, and I think those places that justify it as a patient preference are guessing, and quite likely guessing wrong. It’s a peculiarly isolated convention that’s tied to image and convention, and it would be horsehair-wig quaint to me if it weren’t for the deep level divisions, including those between doctor and patient, similar to those that bother the OP.

          After all, real professional scientists are pretty much the most informal people on the planet.

  8. Ali*

    In academia, at least in the small department (of a huge state university) where I work, it is very common for “lower” employees (those with only Master’s degrees) to refer to the PhD’s as “Dr. so-and-so”, just like their students do. I don’t personally follow this because I think it demeans me to do so – these are people who are on the same level as me in terms of our jobs. Just because they have a PhD and I only have a Master’s, I shouldn’t need to call that out when I address them. No one has commented that I don’t do it, so I don’t think anyone really cares. It just bugs me to see some of my other coworkers do so.

    1. Mike C.*

      And yet when I worked in a laboratory, every called each other by their first name, regardless of education or hereditary privilege.

    2. Andrea*

      I taught at a university for years, and I never saw anything like that. All professors–adjunct, masters level, PhD, whatever–called each other by first names. I was an adjunct professor, and I did call the department head “Dr.,” but he was the type who would not have cared, either way. When I was in grad school at a different school, several professors asked the grad students to call them by their first names (though I never did). Now I’m curious as to whether my experience or yours is more common!

      1. Ali*

        I hope yours is more common. This is the only place I’ve ever worked that does it like this. I don’t know if it is a generational thing – most of the PhD’s are over 50, some over 60. Maybe it’s a difference in age rather than educational level? Still, it bugs me because we’re all (other than the director, who told me from the start to call him Dave) on the same level ( we are research faculty rather than teaching faculty, for the most part ).

      2. Anonymous*

        I remember once I had an undergraduate knock on my door saying “Excuse me Dr. X.” It took a couple of seconds of me trying to remember where Dr X’s office was, before it occurred to me that I was the one being addressed.

        As a diplomat once said to an obnoxious guest: When it comes to matters of protocol, I generally find that those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.

        1. Gene*

          That was Bernard Baruch. The full quote is, “I never bother about that. Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.” I would make a nice cross-stitched sampler of that quote and hang it in my cube if this policy got implemented here.

          And then everyone, without fail would be addressed as Mr. or Ms. at all times. It would amuse me.

      3. Ellen M.*

        I work at a University and while people here are very conscious of title, rank, and tenured vs. not tenured, in my school (within the University) everyone refers to each other by their first names. I got my Master’s degree from the school where I now work, and it was difficult for me at first to refer to some of my former professors by their first names rather than Dr. [Lastname]!

        It may be different though, in different parts of the same University.

        When I refer to faculty members to the students, though, I call them “Dr.” or “Professor”, whichever applies. If it is OK with faculty members for students to call them by their first names, I figure they can give the students permission themselves.

      4. fposte*

        I’d say there’s a complication not being considered here–the strong tradition in many American universities (especially in the north), is that you *don’t* use “Dr.” for a PhD–the honorific would be Mr. or Ms/Mrs./Miss/whatever, because it goes without saying that everybody there has a doctorate (which is why it was most common at institutions where that did go without saying), and advertising yourself as “Dr.” would be like telling everybody how much you make when you’re introduced. It’s a bit of seeming reverse snobbery that’s come back around to be snobbery; I admit I rather like it, and I still wince a little for “Dr.” for PhDs. That’s another reason to go the first-name route–it gets away from that problem!

    3. Ry*

      Ha! Off topic, but I love the idea of “only” a Master’s – you are a humble person :)

      And back on topic, I agree with the idea of referring to everyone as Mr./Ms. So-and-so, not just those above you in pay grade, if the Powers that Be are making you go along with this plan. It will probably seem stiff and kind of goofy, but that in itself will quietly draw attention to the absurdity of the entire idea without compromising your professionalism.

      I am glad that, if I read the OP correctly, this new rule only applies to speaking with others outside the company about employees, not to speaking *to* fellow employees. “Hello, Ms. Green, how are you this morning?” is just weird, in my humble, non-’60s-CEO opinion!

      I am a pretty radical egalitarian, as the OP seems to be – I don’t want to put words in your mouth, OP, but it seems like this directive bothers you on moral grounds, as it does me. (If an MD and his/her secretary come in to my clinic together, I call them “Dr. X” and “Mr./Ms. Y,” unless it’s a doctor I know I can call by his/her first name, in which case I call the secretary by his/her first name as well.)

      That said, I do agree that this issue may not be the end of the world. Awkward, antiquated, strange, unequal, yes – but worth changing jobs for? Only you can decide that, and if this is a dealbreaker for you, please try to stick it out until *after* you have lined up a new job! Good luck and interesting question. I thought this issue only came up in the military, medicine, and law anymore! Guess not!

      1. Ali*

        “Only a Master’s” was mostly being facetious :)
        There are a lot of people here who just automatically assume I’ll be pursuing a PhD, when I have zero plans to. Because in the world of academia, people with PhDs assume we all want to be like them!

        You do make a really good point tho, it’s definitely not something I’d consider a dealbreaker. The OP’s situation seems really odd, but nothing worth ending employment for, unless they are already otherwise looking.

        1. Andrea*

          Also only a master’s….maybe I should have used “Master” as my preferred title? Ha.

    4. Cassie*

      We low-level people (mostly bachelor degrees, or some without any degree) typically call the professors Prof. So-and-So or Dr. So-and-So. Well, to their faces at least. When we’re talking to each other, or even with students sometimes, we frequently drop the “Prof.” or “Dr.” title and just call them “Surname”. I guess it’s probably not that polite, and it definitely depends on who you are talking to.

      There is one professor who basically insists everyone calls him by his first name (for example, he tells the students he advises not to call him professor)… unless you try to make a joke and end up insulting him, and he will hate you forever. And insist that you call him Prof.

      Most of the faculty (whether they are tenure profs or “just” lecturers who have PhDs) do call each other by their first names. Though the professor I mentioned in the above paragraph tells an anecdote from when he just became a professor – a more senior faculty member (Prof. Smith) told him that he had to call him Prof. Smith and not by his first name.

  9. JfC*

    I don’t care to recommend a course of action, but I wanted to comment that this sort of policy would make me feel like an elementary student. I’d be tempted to put gum under their desks.

  10. The Other Dawn*

    I agree with Alison’s advice. In the grand scheme of things, this is minor. Annoying as hell, but minor.

    If this was my workplace I’d probably start looking for another job. I don’t think I could stand a culture like OP’s. I work in a small bank and everyone calls everyone else by their first name, even when referring to, or calling, the CEO. In my opinion it gives everyone a sense of equality. No one is the lowly pee-on. That’s what I like so much about this place. It’s more informal and everyone is comfortable enough to approach the CEO. He’s not some untouchable suit in an out-of-the-way office that no one ever sees.

  11. sr*

    I have to give this post credit for reminding me that I SHOULD be doing this with my supervisors. In my line of work (also gvt, but international), protocol when dealing with outside contacts is extremely important, especially in scenarios when you’re not very chummy with the individual or group you’re communicating with.
    I think with these kinds of things, it’s important to remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the goals of the organization. If you can get behind the goals of the org, perhaps you can get past your icky feelings.

    1. khilde*

      I think this is a good way to look at the situation!!! I have been wondering to myself if there are situations or circumstances the OP may not be aware of that has prompted the leadership to want to be formally addressed to individuals outside the company. I couldn’t imagine what they’d be (and they may be just as petty), but sometimes we have to remember that our “leaders” see things and are aware of things that us schlubs at the bottom don’t see.

  12. Aaron*

    The OP sounds annoyed because she’s been asked to refer to her bosses by their titles in external communications, but the new rules do not require them to extend the same courtesy to her.

    This sounds like the type of rule that often created when some CXO has a bad experience–a few people push through a rule, but others in the company may not particularly care. I’d suggest continuing to maintain normal e-mail etiquette, and mirroring the other people in the conversation, but starting with last names to since that is the new company policy.

    That is, I’d refer to higher-ups as Mr. X in outside communications up until the point at which they referred to me as Aaron, at which point I’d switch and start referring to them by their first names in future conversations with that client. I doubt anyone would complain; if someone did call me on it, I’d apologize, but ask them to refer to me by my last name in the future.

    If there’s someone in the firm who insists on being referred to by her last name or title, but on calling calling Beth “Beth,” then that’s a problem. But this rule doesn’t necessarily mean it’s come to that.

  13. Jaime*

    I think that in correspondence or when dealing with the public, it just makes sense to use full names/titles. Perhaps they’ve forgotten y our boss’s boss’s name and you’re not helping them out. Everyone in my organization has their job title in their email signature.

    When it bleeds into internal, everyday communications in person and via email, then I think it’s just too stuffy. It can also be a little awkward. Your office seems smaller, but in my office we only see our company president about 2 times a year. On the one hand, I don’t know this guy personally, he doesn’t know me … if he weren’t a “coworker” I would say “mr. ___”. But, he’s a coworker (essentially), so that makes the “mr. ___” seem too formal and distant but I don’t really know him so “Tom” seems too familiar. With our director level and below, we all just use first names. It’s only really an issue with executive level officers, though we all know 2 of them so we just use their first names.

    However, the one exeption, is on the phone. We’re all supposed to know how to spell the names of about 15-20 high ranking people (not just 4-6 executives), so they’ve sent down word from on high not to ask how to spell their names. :/ Seriously? It’s not like we’re a company that is a household name or even that these people circulate amongst us on a regular basis; and, we have 1,000+ employees worldwide. I have NO REASON to learn the spelling of their names because I don’t even see email with their names on it more than once or twice a year. It drives me crazy every time this is circulated because one of these people, apparently, got their knickers in a twist when some lowly peon had the gall to ask them to spell their name. Get over yourself already.

  14. DM Andy*

    I work in a British hospital and it’s interesting that all doctors and nurses are referred to by title (with the twist that when a doctor becomes a qualified surgeon they cease being a mere Dr, and now must be called Mr, Mrs or Ms.). That even covers the most junior staff, nursing assistants are HCA at least in writing. But management even up to the CEO are and then on can be referred by first name. The only exception to that would be if they have a knighthood but even then it’s Sir/Dame .

  15. Anonymous*

    According to the OP’s letter, the requirement only applies to formal or written communications. So, if you run into the CEO at the water cooler you can still call him by his first name and give him a shot in the arm, right?

    Am I reading this wrong or does it seem like we’re making a mountain out of a mole hill?

  16. nyxalinth*

    Occasionally I’ve come across job ads that say “Call 555-555-5555 and ask for Mr. Jones” and in one case “MISTER Jones” and i steered clear. I’m not in the Navy any more, and this sort of culture in the civilian world doesn’t work for me.

  17. Lexy*

    I tease my husband calling him “Dr. Lastname” because he has his J.D., he hates it. In a silly environment like this I would start calling all the lawyers “Dr.” as an act of protest.

    But I revel in being ridiculous.

  18. Charles*

    Okay, I’ll be the one who is different here.

    I do not see this as a bad or snobbish thing. Re-read OP’s letter again folks. They are asked to REFER to those higher up by honorific and last name in email or other correspondence. They are not being ask to CALL them that way in person. This is so that in case an email has to be forwarded it will look (sound?) more professional.

    I don’t see that as a bad thing. Nor do I see it as “insulting, demeaning, and demoralizing.” Seriously, I have more important things to be insulted about than how someone else refers to me or how I should address them. (I could go off on a rant about demoralzing – try being unemployed and “older” when no one wants to hire you because they think you should be out to pasture. I’ll take a job, ANY job, that offers benefits, paid holiday, and maybe paid vacation and GLADLY refer to the higher ups however they wish as long as I get a paycheck)

    To answer the OP’s questions, Yes, there are some other (non-governmental, both not and for-profit) organizations that have rules about correspondence; including email. You learn them or you find another job. (And really is it that hard to get into the habit of refering to someone a certain way in correspondence?)

    Too much informality isn’t a good thing either. It does sound like someone had to forward an email and saw that the CEO or whoever was referred to as “Charlie” in the email. And that may have caused problems – hence the reason for this directive.

    Lastly, if you really want to go the route of sarcasm, then be sure to sign all your emails as “your humble, grovelling, most unworthy, skunk scat, peon assistant.”

    1. Anon*

      I suspect it was the talking to people outside the immediate office, not correspondence part that annoyed the OP, but frankly I agree that it doesn’t seem like *that* big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I think AAM’s advice to just to refer to everyone as Mr or Mrs and to start looking for a new job if the cultures becoming a bad fit was spot on.

    2. Just me*

      Yes that is what was said in the post. If OP see’s “Mr.Jones” in the break room getting a donut, my understanding that she can say ” Hi Ted whats up? ”
      It is just in work related, outside people, emails, letter type things that “Mr. Jones” is needed.
      This is not a target on the OP. It is a decision for the business.

    3. Just me*

      Yes that is what the OP says. Only in emails, letters and so on. It does not read that if the OP see’s ” Mr. Jones” in the break room that she can’t say.. ” Hi Ted what’s up”.

    4. Camellia*

      This was also my first thought when I read the post.

      The “in all email and formal correspondence and when talking to anyone outside our immediate office” reminds me of the dress code of many offices that, if you are outward facing – meeting clients, customers, etc. – a suit and tie (or the equivilant) are required, whereas if you sit at your desk all day and crank out Java code you may wear jeans. Just a matter of a more professional, polished appearance, whether as clothing or correspondence.

      It also addresses another point. If I sent an email that says, “Dave approves of this,” that may leave the recipient wondering to which of the 46 Daves employed by my company is the email referring? Yep, 46, I just checked our on-line directory. And no, it is not always made clear by context; we have 7 of those Daves in our IT department and 2 of them are in the same group!

      As for the explanation of knowing someone is “important”, I honestly think that was just a botched explanation of trying to communicate the request for something more professional. They are free to borrow my dress code analogy for future explanations!

    5. Gene*

      What I took from the OP was that it wasn’t only the requirement to refer to higher level people with the honorific, it seemed that the biggest thing stuck in her craw was that “underlings” would not. That would rankle me as well.

      If people are to be referred to by honorific in outside communications, ALL should be referred to that way. And to address the “which Dave” comment below; you run into the same thing with “Which Mr Jones?”

  19. OMG*

    I used to work in an international hotel in a south east asian country and all the expatriates had to be addressed as Mr./Ms. + Last Name, and us local people are to be called by our first names!
    Although on the name badge, all the management positions have our last name only and the rank and file have their first name on.

    If my workplace starts implying this kind of policy (or the one OP mentioned), I’d quit in a heart beat. It’s just too humiliating to me.

  20. Tex*

    I’m really surprised by the reactions here. After reading the OP’s posting, I imagined it as the State Department, USAID or some other organization with a lot of contact with foreign counterparts – many of whom would be confused and bewildered if they were trying to figure out the office hierarchy.

    Speaking of cultural office clashes, I was in the elevator with two foreign clients (who didn’t realize I could understand their conversation) and they were insulted that someone came into a meeting chewing gum.

    Different expectations, people.

    1. Anonymous*

      Ditto. Years ago, I was an EA at a start up. I always referred to my bosses as Mr. So-and-So when speaking with clients or board members, even though in the office we stuck to first names. One boss actually went by his nickname. We worked with a lot of older and old school types, some of whom thought my late-30s/early 40s bosses were “kids.” Using formal titles helped make them, and our organization, seem more professional.

  21. doreen*

    I work for a government agency and communications tend to be more formal/old fashioned than some other workplaces. For example, I have seen meeting minutes that refer to ” Messrs. X Y and Z” and it’s not at all uncommon to see a typed “Dear Elizabeth Lastname” crossed out and “Liz” handwritten when the writer knows the addressee. Memos are to and from Fullname , Title, Bureau or department and cc’d to Mr or Ms Lastname (no first name).

    The policy the OP refers to is for written communication outside the immediate office, and I would like to know if the OP was actually told she would be referred to as “Beth” for two reasons. The first is because I cannot imagine sending an email or letter to someone and referring to ” Beth” when that person probably doesn’t not know who she is or what she does.

    The second is because I had almost the reverse situation. I had to direct some of my subordinates that in any communications ( oral or written ) outside our immediate office they were to refer to support staff either by Ms Lastname , Title Lastname or Elizabeth Lastname rather than referring to her as “Ms Lizzie” ( which is bad enough in a conversation, but truly awful in a memo). I did not simultaneously inform them that I referred to them in the same way- although I did.

    (and the OP should be happy she doesn’t work for a law enforcement or other paramilitary agency. In those places, every one (including civilians) has to stand when someone above a certain rank enters the room)

  22. TheAssistant*

    I had the opposite problem when I started at my office. I referred to all executives as Mr. or Mrs., “sir” or “ma’am.” I felt it was downright rude for me, a 22 year old fresh out of college, to acknowledge those who had been working – managing, even – longer than I had been alive by their first names.

    I was quickly set straight by a colleague that it was decidedly outside of the office culture to do that, and to please use first names. Even our official correspondence uses first/nicknames of senior-level staff.

    I suppose it seems jarring now, OP, but the shock will most likely wear off faster than you think. Good luck with the change!

  23. Just me*

    Ok… here is my take. I think the OP is going overboard on the anger on this. I am not quite sure why it is insulting, demeaning and demoralizing. How? How does it really affect you and the ability to do your job? Bottom Line?
    And going out on a limb here and not to be disrespectful to the OP it was mentioned by the OP about standing on principle with things to the point where it doesn’t do her any good. OP complained to her boss with the thinking that is should be changed as well as deciding it is her responsibility to change it. And wanting to roll the eyes in sarcasm and start calling everyone by their last name just sounds silly.
    I just don’t get that. It sounds, going by OP’s own words that she look a little too much in finding ways to be ticked about things. It almost looks as if the OP has an issue with authority. Is this really about calling Mr. Jones however or is this about the OP’s deciding that they know better about such matters and they are going to dig their heels in to prove it.

    Whether the policy is silly or not to me isn’t the issue. I am not quite sure why OP feel’s so angry about this. I agree with some of the posters and AAM just let it go.

    1. fposte*

      I think it can be tough to reconcile the cultural message of equality with the workplace fact of a hierarchy. The fact is, though, that I’m not entitled to the same things at work that people above me are, and I’m not as valuable as they are. But we really don’t like reminders of that lesser value, and we’re quick to read them as a statement of our lesser *human* worth, not just of our company worth.

      So, yeah, it’s weird and dumb, but it’s not like it’s an egalitarian work world outside of this either, and I think that may be more of what’s really frosting the OP.

      1. Just me*

        Agreed. Example , our bosses get to not come to work on a bad weather day or go home early. I get an attendace point and a 60 day timeframe to get that point off , if I am a minute late during a snow storm. The managers get to deterime if the weather was bad enough for my being late. But they can be late regardless. Fair? No, but what do you do, you deal with it. It is the way it is in business. Fair or not.

        1. Lauren*

          Sounds like you have a bad boss to me! In my workplaces, the boss is the only one there on a bad weather day. Someone has to be there to open the office and turn off the security alarms for any employees that do make it in. And they couldn’t risk missing a client call or visit.

          Also, about fairness, do you own a portion of the business? If the business loses a big client, and the company goes under, will you be bankrupt? Nope, you’ll just look for new position. Big salaries generally come with big risks.

        2. Jamie*

          I can’t speak to your company, but I know this is a common issue in many workplaces. Certain positions being held to different attendance rules than other positions.

          There are certainly some places where the rules are unfair and where people take advantage of the system. But some things can appear unfair on the surface but not once you know all the facts.

          Some positions have time and attendance monitored more closely – often these positions also have definate start and end times. Some jobs are strictly contained to office hours, and once off work the people are off work and left alone until they are back on the clock.

          I’ve worked with someone who resented how everyone else seemed to “come and go as they pleased” and she was required to hold regular hours. She worked reception. She had to be there during office hours and never had to stay late or come in early. When her grumbling about my wandering in later in the mornings became irritating I made sure she overheard a casual conversation with my boss about how all that week I hadn’t left the office before 10:00 pm because of a data migration and testing that could only happen after hours and how I was looking forward to it being over so I could finally have a Saturday off once in a while.

          Her resentment faded immediately. She was interpreting my wandering in at 9 – 9:30 as me getting special treatment – but there was more to it than she was aware. I didn’t owe her an explanation, but it helped her understand that it’s not black and white.

          No, I don’t have a specific time I need to be at my desk in the morning – but I also don’t have a set time by which I can leave either. If something is happening I can’t just punch out at 5:00 and leave it for tomorrow.

          So – the whole different standards for different positions almost always has more behind it than just rankism.

  24. Just me*

    And also, I think another poster mentioned this, maybe there is a reason from another higher source on why this policy started. Maybe something happened that spawned a problem.

    If the OP really wants to work with the policy maybe the OP can find out more of the history of it.

  25. James*

    I’ve worked in places that both used the Mr./Ms. titles, and ones that didn’t. In my first job in high school and part of college, i worked at a large chain pharmacy, and there we addressed our store managers and assistant managers using Mr./Ms. Lastname. This was just the culture in place when I arrived, so I followed it. Some of the assistant managers would be comfortable with you using their first name, but most people were addressed using Mr./Ms.

    In my current office in a large hospital, we all just use first names. Managers, executives, and lower level employees are all comfortable using first names.

    I don’t know why there’s a difference, as both work locations where in the same city, so same set of customs/formalities.

  26. jn*

    I bet this was some d-bag middle managers decision! either way. GET OUT as soon as you can.

  27. Michael C.*

    This is similar to Microsoft’s culture, though it seems somewhat more inadvertent in Microsoft’s case.

  28. Long Time Admin*

    I applaud that fact that you treat everyone you encounter with respect and dignity. That is sorely lacking in the world today. And I do understand that this stupid policy really bugs the holy hell out of you.

    However, it’s not worth the stress it will cause you, day in and day out, by fuming over it and making it bigger than really is. There are idiotic policies everywhere you go, and most of them are much more painful than this.

    Decide if you want to look for a new job or not, and get over it. (Really. You don’t want to carry this anger into an interview or a new job.)

  29. MaryTerry*

    If they want to change the office culture at this point, I would start using Ms. Lastname/Mr. Lastname with everyone as a sign of respect: the world could use more respect. Seems to me the insult is that only “some” people are deemed to be worthy of respect.

    I, on the other hand prefer to be called “Lady MaryTerry” but haven’t been able to get my coworkers to cooperate. (Maybe I need to start wearing my tiara to work?)

  30. Kathleen in AZ*

    I work in a quasi-military top-down government agency, and we refer to our higher up administers by their Mr. or title name, it used to bother me, but it is just the culture of a miltary-type organization.

  31. Bonnie*

    I wonder if there was an outside review of internal emails and documents for either a lawsuit or formal information request and even the attorneys involved couldn’t tell who was who based on the way correspondence was written. This may have been requested by the attorneys as a way to help them during future discovery requests. Whatever the reason the reason for the change should have been explained to help employees see the importance and need for the change in correspondence.

  32. Patricia*

    OP, you might be overreacting. I don’t know if anyone outside of yourself is the best judge of this, however. You noted that you have a tendency to stand on principle long past the point where it does you any good. If you think you are beyond that point of good, then you might want to give your principles a break while you figure out how to work in a way thats suited to your principles and all else. AAM’s advice is on point.

    I’ll also add that I work in a governmental agency, and its common where I work for people to be referred to as Ms. SuchandSuch in formal communication (including certain kinds of email, which may be considered formal) and communication with others outside of the agency. And I am in a position where others could (and would likely) call me by my title and add my last name in referring to me in communication with parties outside of the agency – not necessarily bc I’m all that important, but because it would be helpful to understanding what my role is in the agency, especially in legal matters and other matters of public record.

  33. OP*

    Everyone, thanks so much for your comments! I’ve made some responses above to particular threads. To clarify one issue that many of you have raised: We are supposed to use the Mr. and Ms. when talking to (or in front of) anyone outside our immediate office. I’d say that applies to at least half of the meetings we have, and I probably average 3 meetings per day.

    I genuinely respect hierarchy. And I honestly like and respect every person I am now expected to call Mr. So-and-so. But I feel like I’m being treated like a child here. They have explicitly said that certain people need to be called Mr. or Ms. so that people outside our office will know they are “important” and treat them with the appropriate respect. (And no, we’re not dealing with some kind of international relations situation.) The clear implication there is that the other people in the office are less important and that we will accept other people in our organization (and outside) treating “underlings” with less respect. That’s unacceptable to me.

    It’s not a fall-on-my-sword issue. I will get over it, and I’m not angry. I’m annoyed, and a little bummed. I wanted to know how common the practice was and whether I’m crazy for thinking this is crazy. These comments have been great, thank you!

  34. Helena*

    What if you want to refer to a name, after Mr. name and surname shall follow or vice versa surname and name?
    Thank you.

  35. hotdogs*

    I’d be tempted to take this as an opportunity to invent new titles for my colleagues and bosses. No longer do I work with Tom, Tina, Sue and Dick. Oh no, they’ve been magically transsubstantiated into Lord Admiral Radtke, Dowager Empress Smith, Burgermeister Alibali and Jam Master Van Vleck. Each would be greeted with elaborate bows and/or handshakes.

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