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What’s in a name?

I am about to hire an employee from another country. His first name is very common where he’s from, but the name’s Spanish translation is gross and offensive. This employee will need to work with Spanish-speaking employees and might need to visit Spanish-speaking countries as part of his employment. Can I ask him to go by a different name or a nickname?

It’s probably not a good idea. The Civil Rights Act prevents racial discrimination and harassment in employment. It ensures that all people have the right to make and enforce contracts and enjoy all of the benefits of the contractual relationship. Because the employment relationship is contractual in nature, it provides relief for employment discrimination.

The law is intended to protect from discrimination identifiable classes of persons who are subject to intentional discrimination solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics. Courts have held that such ethnic characteristics include more than skin color and physical traits, and that names are often a proxy for race and ethnicity.

Even if your new name/nickname for the employee is not itself a racial epithet, even requesting he use a different name could support a claim. Discriminating against his name, which identifies him with a particular racial or national group, is discrimination based on race or national origin.

While calling him a nickname doesn’t seem severe enough to rise to the level of a hostile work environment, and you don’t seem to have a discriminatory intent, the simple action of asking him to go by a different name constitutes discrimination.

Deliberately and routinely “Americanizing” someone’s name can create a hostile work environment. If an employee asks to be called a certain name, or objects to being called a nickname, you need to make sure they are being addressed appropriately. If an employee communicates to you that other employees are engaging in this kind of behavior, you need to meet with those employees immediately to ensure that you’re not harboring a hostile work environment. It may be necessary for you to discipline or even terminate any employee who harasses or discriminates against coworkers.

Make a point of eliminating harassment and discrimination in your workplace. Your employee handbook should explain what discrimination looks like, and require that your employees do their part to prevent harassment from occurring. If it’s really a problem for your business, you should consider implementing racial sensitivity training. A workplace where everyone is accepted and treated fairly will perform better than one where people aren’t comfortable being themselves.

Mary Luros is a business law attorney with Hudson & Luros LLP in Napa, and can be reached at mary@hudsonluros.com. The information provided here is not legal advice, nor does it form an attorney-client relationship with the author. The author makes no representations as to the reliability or accuracy of the above information.