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We recently moved into a new office building, and I was put in charge of coordinating a lot of the new office logistics. One of the things I needed to do was to come up with new names for our different conference rooms.

Rather than give a boring, generic name (like the Aspen Room), I decided to turn it into an exciting fundraiser. I said that for every $10 people donated to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, individuals would get a raffle ticket. The winner of the raffle would have the honor of the biggest conference room named after them. (For example, if somebody named James Bond won the raffle, we would name it the Bond Conference Room).

This ended up being a huge success, and our office raised over $7,000 for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Lots of people were excited about the raffle.

The winner of the raffle was a woman who is not native to the US. Unfortunately, her last name looks and sounds exactly like an obscene English word that is used to describe a sexual act. (Not going to share the name here for obvious reasons, but I can assure you that almost everybody would do a double-take if they saw the name posted in big letters on a door).

I took her aside and explained to her that we can't name the conference room after her last name, especially since we often have conservative elderly clients who may be scandalized by the conference room name.

She immediately became upset and claimed that I was being racist and a bigot, and that I wasn't accepting of her ethnicity. I offered to name the conference room after her first name (a very common American name), but that just made her even more mad because she thinks I only care about her name sounding American.

She's gotten several people in her office on her side, and they are all calling me a racist and giving me dirty looks. I'm overhearing rumblings about starting a safe space in the office to discuss racial prejudices. Needless to say, this is starting to get ugly really quickly. I told my boss (who works in a different location) about this situation, and he just told me to deal with it and stop bothering him.

How can I defuse this situation without seeming insensitive or intolerant? What am I doing wrong?

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    Ooookay, let's not keep the comments about all matter of things that aren't appropriate. Use the answer box for answers, thanks. – enderland Oct 31 '18 at 21:21
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    You could have hit exactly the same problem with "white American" names. In the UK, two of my working colleagues are named Nick Cock and Fiona Dicks. Not ideal conference-room-door-naming material! – alephzero Oct 31 '18 at 22:38
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    I'd like a clarification on this: "looks and sounds exactly like an obscene English word ". Is it also spelled like it? That is, is it literally an obscene word? – pipe Nov 1 '18 at 8:28

15 Answers 15

221

I would personally use both her first and her last name, and do the same for everyone else in the raffle. While not bigoted per se, refusing to treat all entrants the same is a problem in the workplace. That her name resembles an offensive word in English should not be a serious consideration in any case, as (hopefully) persons in your business (be they employees or visitors) should be mature enough to not assume it's an attempt to offend them. Besides, how hard is it to answer people who question it with "The room was named after the winner of a raffle, just like all the others."?

As Joe pointed out in the comments, adding a photo of the winner would go a long way to clearing up any misunderstandings.

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    First and last name is great advice. The rest is terrible advice. First impressions last a lifetime. Do you really want to pitch to potential investors in the "Fucking Conference Room?" – kingledion Nov 25 '18 at 20:28
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    Depending on the offensive word, the photo may maye things considerably worse rather than improving them. – Flater Feb 1 at 12:00
  • I guess I'm assuming a level of professionalism and maturity to be upheld. Ideally, the company wouldn't allow for a situation like this to occur in the first place. But Damage control is about minimizing impact, not making it perfect. – GOATNine Feb 1 at 13:15
  • I agree with first and last name being a good solution. Especially if you put them between quote marks to make sure they're read as a set and not as isolated words. Like "Anita Fuchs" Room – Juliana Karasawa Souza Jul 12 at 12:35
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    @kingledion Who's first name is Fucking and last name is Conference? Even so, I would definitely pitch to investors in the Richard Fucks room. The name would immediately raise eyebrows and it would be a great starter for a conversation about how our company is socially oriented to its core to the point that internal activities, like picking up room names, raised 7000$ for make-a-wish foundation. If that doesn't soften their souls, I don't want to know how they make their money, and I don't need it. It's simply a mismatch that will never work out. – Andrei Aug 7 at 12:43
97

Here's a simple solution (for you): pass the buck.

You can just follow through on the original plan of the promotion and name the conference room after her. I'd expect management to object to the name for the same reasons you gave, and now it's their problem to appease the employee.

And if they don't, then maybe you were wrong in thinking that most people would find it objectionable. Either way, it's not your problem any more.

It's too late now, but you probably could have avoided the problem with a "subject to management approval" condition in the contest rules.

Another possibility is to arrange a meeting with the aggrieved employee and both your managers, and try to work out a compromise. Try to explain to her that you're trying to be practical, not racist. It's unfortunate that her name sounds like a derogatory term in your language.

I'm not sure there's any way to get out of this completely cleanly. You seem to have gotten yourself into a no-win situation. Either you're going to upset this employee or put the company in a very difficult situation. Your intentions were good, but you're the victim of unintended consequences. The best you can do now is try to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, I think the employee's feelings may have to take a back seat to other employees and the company's reputation with customers (but this really needs to be a management decision).

It's surprising to me that she hasn't run into problems due to her name numerous times before. But maybe she has, and she's trying to use this opportunity to make a social statement (I wonder if she bought lots of lottery tickets to increase the chance of this). This needs to be dealt with by management, you're not responsible for how everyone else will react.

Someone pointed out to me that the question says that you tried raising this issue with your manager and he wasn't interested in helping. That seems like very poor management, and I'm not sure what you can do about it. This is exactly the kind of thing that management should be dealing with, and he's shirking his duty and leaving you hanging. You could try going above his head, but that could just increase the friction between you and your manager.

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    If I were OPs manager and they did this to me, I might not be so happy with them, when they could have dealt with the issue themselves and not put it on my plate. – GOATNine Oct 31 '18 at 17:11
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    @R.. It seems like there's no way to get out of this without bothering someone. – Barmar Oct 31 '18 at 17:33
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    @Barmar: Yes, the whole idea was just incredibly bad, but now that it's happened, OP needs to find a solution that minimizes further harm/embarrassment to the winner and builds confidence among other employees that he (1) doesn't intend to treat others unfairly along racial/ethnic lines, and (2) isn't going to do that just to save his own ass from uncomfortable situations. I'm not sure how to best achieve that. – R.. Oct 31 '18 at 17:36
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    @R.. I Think he may have to live with hurting the employee to avoid more serious consequences. – Barmar Oct 31 '18 at 17:41
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    Passing the buck sounds like a great idea. When management nix the name, you can put a comforting arm around the contestant and say "There, there..." – Richard Nov 1 '18 at 9:15
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How can I defuse this situation without seeming insensitive or intolerant? What am I doing wrong?

Unless you are willing to follow through on the terms of your fundraiser, you're going to have a very difficult time appearing sensitive and tolerant. Not having support from HR and management makes that outcome unlikely.

If you are truly correct about how your "elderly" clients would react, your best bet is to apologize profusely, cancel the "exciting fundraiser" give back all the money, and go with a more boring, generic name set. And now you know why boring, generic names are used.

Next time, think things through beforehand. If the end result was using a last name you should have looked at the last names in your company and thought "Now, what is the worst that could happen here?"

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    +1 for the Now, what is the worst that could happen here?. I had a colleague which name could be read as "asshole" in my locale. That sure would have been a weird room name – Aserre Oct 31 '18 at 15:41
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    The whole thing was an incredibly bad idea. the idea of just cancelling it, admitting the mistake, and giving back all the money is an excellent idea. – Fattie Oct 31 '18 at 15:45
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    How will cancelling the fundraiser diffuse the current situation? That seems like it's telling the offended: you're name is so bad we had to just cancel the whole thing. – Kenneth K. Oct 31 '18 at 16:45
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    The whole idea was bad because it ended up turning an employee's name into a topic of controversy and ridicule. Any good apology should be framed as "this whole thing was a very bad idea on my part and I didn't think it through", but if the winner still doesn't get what they were promised, whereas any other employee who had won obviously would have, there's a problem. – R.. Oct 31 '18 at 16:50
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    Obligatory XKCD. It could have been so much worse. xkcd.com/327 – Graham Oct 31 '18 at 19:08
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From the direction from the raffle winner (who paid to compete), your colleagues and your boss, then you have to name the room after the winner, regardless of their last name.

Your concern regarding customer perception is important, but it's a possible problem rather than a current, actual problem. I would be prepared to explain to customers why the room is named as it is if they complain, but otherwise take no action.

31

Maybe you can stand above it - you are not the first with that issue. The state government building in Boston has a large sign for the "General Hooker Entrance", and no, it's not the usual entrance for prostitutes. Maybe the first & last name use is a solution too.

21

Another option to consider if the person in question's last name originates from a language that traditionally uses a different writing system than the latin alphabet, you can name the conference room using both the "traditional" way of writing the name plus the transliteration to the latin alphabet.

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    This is a fantastic answer! For example, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Hindi etc would could all be written in traditional characters! – WetlabStudent Nov 1 '18 at 6:39
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    How you will use room name verbally? In front of same client who not aware that it is some foreign name. – talex Nov 1 '18 at 9:46
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    @talex "plus the transliteration to the latin alphabet." – theonlygusti Nov 1 '18 at 12:26
  • @theonlygusti how will it solve OP problem. This name pronounced in front of people will sound offensive. – talex Nov 2 '18 at 2:34
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    @talex it further emphasises that its a foreign name and is therefore not offensive to reasonable people. If some old people are unreasonable that is their problem. You pronounce the name as it is supposed to be pronounced. If after a photo, traditional characters, a first name etc on the plaque the old people are still offended even though they understand it is the traditional name of the person then there is nothing you can do about that. – WetlabStudent Nov 2 '18 at 2:46
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I would approach the raffle winner and apologise for the offence caused, while clarifying that this was not the intention. Then tell her that, to make amends for the incident, you are going to allow her to name the office suite as she likes, including offering the name that you rejected, and that you will be refunding the price of the raffle in her case. Do. This. In. Writing. This gives you an out if the chosen name does actually offend. And it also counts as written evidence of your original intention and that you tried to make amends for the misunderstanding.

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    I like this, but I'm not sure it's actually as kind as it sounds. Effectively, by letting her choose a name, you're putting her at risk of punishment when someone later deems her name offensive. This would not have happened to any other winner of the raffle, so she should not have to bear such a risk either. OP made the mess, and OP should be the one who bears the risks of carrying through with treating the winner fairly. – R.. Oct 31 '18 at 17:00
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    @R.. I don't think the issue is whether or not the name is offensive in context; I think everyone (including OP) agrees that it is not. The issue is what happens out of context. If you are a potential client of a company who has a boardroom named "The Fuck Room", for ANY reason, does that make you think higher or lower of the professionalism of that company? That said, I'm also not a fan of this answer so I'm not giving it a +, but I don't dislike it enough to give a -. – Ertai87 Oct 31 '18 at 17:27
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    @R.. I was specifically responding to your statement: "I think she might like to have her name, which is not offensive unless you decide to treat it as such". A boardroom named "The Fuck Room" is offensive by default, until you find out it was named after Angela Q. Fuck who happens to work in sales. Most clients, especially the older business-types OP is concerned with, will probably choose to simply look at the company as less professional, rather than ask why the room has that name. – Ertai87 Oct 31 '18 at 17:35
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    @R.. In my opinion, she was told the name may be offensive to some, and she was quick to call that racist. Whether OP is right or wrong, or whether she is right or wrong, she still wants to use her name even after being told it may be offensive - I think she should be the one at risk of punishment if someone finds it offensive and costs the company money. Why should OP be? He tried to politely pull her aside and try to resolve the issue but she isn't trying to work with OP, and causing others to look down on OP. – Grumpy says Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '18 at 18:12
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    @R.. Well to be fair the rules were hidden even to the person who created the contest. I agree OP could have handled the pre-situation better, such as looking at all the employees who may enter the contest and see the worst case - and I also agree that "putting the punishment on her" should also not be framed as an apology. However, OP did try to work out the situation with this employee and now being looked down upon as racist by others, seems almost like defamation to me, and if this employee insists on this, she should be the one in trouble if it goes wrong. – Grumpy says Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '18 at 18:28
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Let's say the lady's name is Mrs. Fokker, which is not an uncommon name if she comes from the Netherlands. And you say it sounds like something offensive, while Mrs. Fokker strongly disagrees.

What you should do: Call the room the "Fokker room" as you should have done in the first place. If someone complains, you ask them if you should tell Mrs. Fokker that they think her name is offensive, or if they would like to do that in person.

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    Make sure the lettering on the sign are huge so the 80 year-olds OP is worried about can read it too. – HenryM Aug 9 at 2:43
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I think it's worth chipping in here to note that I have previously worked with a Chinese guy whose surname is Fok. As you can imagine, the guy takes a lot of abuse due to his name. He is well aware of what his name sounds like to English-speaking ears. I don't know how he feels about it internally but on the surface he is very polite and understanding about it; when someone tries to make a joke about it, he is great at defusing what could potentially be an awkward situation. He's obviously had to do that a lot.

Not everyone in his position would handle it the same way; different personality types will respond differently to the same problem, but one thing you can be sure of is that anyone with a name like this will be well aware of the potential for problems like this, and will have their responses to common situations well-prepared.

With that in mind, the individual in the question clearly entered this competition with her eyes open to how it would look to have her name on the sign. Yet she still entered the competition. She will have anticipated this situation right from the start.

Therefore, I suspect you'll find that she's willing to fight this to the end, just to make a point. So regardless of how the name sounds to your ears, I think your best bet is to simply accept that she is going to win this, because the longer you drag it out, the more awkward and damaging it will become.

The suggestion given elsewhere of using her full name rather than just the surname will mitigate the problem because it will be clear that it is a name rather than just an dumb joke for a room name.

If you really can't cope with the thought of a potentially offensive name for the room, your only realy get-out clause is to defer the decision to your boss (assuming you have one), and let them grapple with the problem. I doubt that this is a feasible option for you, but I don't see any other way to get out of it.

7

There was a similar situation once where a couple of guys called Randolph Fokker and Mustaffa Kundt got authorized to sign all marketing communications. And Randolph insisted on Randy. The end result was net positive because the curious learnt the truth, and the offended were not desired clientele.

Just go with the person's name.

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    I would say, just go with the name. If it is a real name (and not cooked up to be offensive) i would not say "Just go with the offensive name." – robert bristow-johnson Nov 1 '18 at 0:13
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    I'd say context makes it offensive. "Fokker" comes from "fokking", "to breed". So does the English terms. Some people bred animals for a living, hence the surname. There used to be a successful airplane manufacturer called "Fokker" and its planes are still flying around en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fokker – Bas Peeters Nov 1 '18 at 3:35
  • @Sentinel sounds apocryphal (but phunny :-) - do you have a reference for that? – Mawg says reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 8:19
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    @Mawg there are in fact a few Randy Fokker profiles on FB if you want go through them and ask which ones had a professional relationship with a Kundt.:-) – Sentinel Feb 1 at 8:57
  • Yes, and there's a Mort Fallick too - but do you have any reference to this particular story? – Mawg says reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 8:59
2

A few questions:

  1. Who are these people saying you're a racist? Are they below or above you in seniority? Are they numerous or a small group? If there is a group of low-level employees causing this ruckus, then I would just go to management and tell them the story you have told here: "I did this thing, it kind of backfired, now there is a problem" and have management discuss the issue directly with the person in question and work it out. Take yourself out of the equation completely and let management take the fall.

  2. If you try the above and it fails (management refuses to back you up), then IMO it's an issue of company culture. If management fails to back you up despite you obviously trying to provide value to the business, then obviously the value you are providing is not strong enough for management to care. In which case, I would just cave and name the room after the employee as originally planned. The business consideration that naming a room after a swear word is (in this case) obviously of higher value to management than appearing professional is, and management will take the hit, not you, in the end, with fewer client contracts and less income and so on. In this case, however, I would document everything you have done and continue to do in case it blows back in your face later.

  3. If you are management or HR, then you have a stronger position. Your position is to protect the business and maximize the needs of your clients, including having a presentable and professional business environment for them to visit. Put your foot down: "No, we will not have swear words on our conference rooms, sorry, end of discussion, if you would like to submit your resignation because you believe I am a racist due to protecting business interests then feel free to do so effective immediately". IANAL but I can't believe any court of law would find you liable under discrimination laws for failing to put a swear word on the door of a conference room in your office space under the "reasonable person" standard.

In any of the above 3 cases, I would offer to refund the money of this person though; she paid for the honour of having the room named after her, she should either get what she paid for or get her money returned. It's not fair to keep her money. If the money has already been donated, then the money might have to come out of your own pocket personally.

One alternative you might want to suggest is to name the conference room using the full name of the person. That way at least it might kind of look like the room isn't just named after a swear word, and in fact named after a particular person. Another option (credit to @JoeStrazzere in a comment thread on a different answer) is to put pictures of all the raffle winners in the rooms, along with their full names.

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    @user3067860 Not sure if anything in that document is applicable to the discussion at hand. It's not an employment matter; nobody is being hired or fired based on their national origin. In fact the issue is with the person's name specifically not their national origin; anyone else from that region with a different name would be fine in this scenario. – Ertai87 Oct 31 '18 at 17:24
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    @user3067860 That document talks specifically about "employment decisions," which this is not. – reirab Oct 31 '18 at 21:46
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    Refunding the money is totally, totally unacceptable. She, like everyone else, paid $10 for a raffle ticket. However, her ticket is a winning ticket. Most tickets have a value of zero, hers is much much more valuable. It seems you had 700 tickets. If we go with the refunding, then she paid $10 for a ticket that had zero chance of winning, and a one in 700 chance of getting a refund. If you must, refund all tickets then explain. – gnasher729 Nov 1 '18 at 10:07
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    @Ertai87 sounds like a great way to scam people. Announce a buy-in lottery -> collect money -> go "you paid, you won, you don't get the prize, here's your money back". You've now made X-1 times the ticket amount. Hey, it's better than not refunding them, right? – VLAZ Nov 2 '18 at 8:41
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    @Ertai87 the question has been closed exactly because it's opinion based. So no, I don't want to submit opinions here and I (very rightly) cannot. Besides, disagreeing with an answer or part of one is not the same as posting a different answer. – VLAZ Nov 2 '18 at 14:26
2

As for the lady being offended is over reacting and looking for a reason to cause problems I think. If their name is indeed similar to a bad word then they should understand your caution in the matter.

On another note your supervisor sound like a bad apple to me. I do not know a single supervisor worth their salt that would simple tell you to leave them alone and deal with it yourself. Especially if the issue can result in HR getting involved.

You work in a professional environment. The lady won and the deal was to use their name. Personally I would put up that persons name and leave it at that. I understand your worry about a name that might be similar to a rude or inappropriate word but unless that name is spelled exactly like a very offensive word then I would not worry about it. At the very worst most people will just get a good laugh out of the name and move on.

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    -1 for your first paragraph. +1 for your second. So, no vote from me ;-) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 8:22
  • @Mawg People often are looking for reasons to be offended. That is the reason I said what I did in the 1st paragraph. In today's work environment and in social media people are always looking for a reason to be offended. Its sad but the reality. – Sierra Mountain Tech Feb 1 at 13:22
2

She immediately became upset and claimed that I was being racist and a bigot, and that I wasn't accepting of her ethnicity. I offered to name the conference room after her first name (a very common American name), but that just made her even more mad because she thinks I only care about her name sounding American.

Sensitive issues like discrimination often become a minefield when the issue expands (as is the case with her colleagues taking her side), so I suggest tackling the core issue. Something along the lines of:

I have no personal issue with your name. I am not interested in nor focused on picking a specifically American name. However, we cannot avoid the reality that your last name, without the context of your heritage, will be interpreted as an inappropriate term. Visitors will only see the meeting room's name without knowing anything about you, and will interpret the name in an American context; which will send the wrong message.

Emotions may already have run too high for her and her colleagues to listen to reason, but I would make sure to articulate this to her and her colleagues (and your manager) to open a discussion on the non-racist nature of the problem.

Offer her to pick a name. You can even suggest that you would happily accept non-American names, e.g. her child or parent's name; to prove the point that your objection is in no way racist or nationalist.

Nonetheless, you cannot in good faith ignore this problem. It will blow back on you when the inevitable consequences will rear their head. As your manager is unwilling to deal with the issue; it may become aproppriate to let her escalate the issue to your manager herself. This way, your manager will have to deal with it and he won't be able to dismiss her in the way he is dismissing you now.

Note: don't tell her to go to your manager, as that will also blow back on you. At best, you can tell her that you are addressing it with your manager but have no answer for her yet.

0

If other solutions do not work(like using the full name, reduced font, etc), you can name the conference room after a famous person who belongs to the same country/culture as your troubled employee. Like “Mahatma Gandhi room” or “Nelson Mandela room”. You will still be the person who did not keep their end of the deal but at least you won’t be called as racist. Smaller problem I think.

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    That opens a whole other can of worms, as that could be seen as stereotyping a person into single (mis?)representations of their culture.Also, what if the winner wishes to reject their culture entirely? If you do avoid the name like this, I'd say you should broaden it to let the raffle winner choose any name instead of restricting based on culture. – user45266 Nov 1 '18 at 6:08
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    I would take more offense to that personally. I am from India and not a "big fan" (putting it kindly) of Mr. Gandhi. – R.Joshi Nov 1 '18 at 9:20
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    @user45266: Someone who rejects their culture entirely will be able to understand the perception of their own last name in a cultural context different than the one they are actively rejecting. – Flater Feb 1 at 11:57
-1

It would have been better to set the raffle up to let the winner pick a name for the room, subject to approval by [some manager or committee].

In any case you were probably not given absolute authority to name the room whatever you liked, regardless of connotations. There is some manager who will ultimately have to approve the room names. Consult them to see if you can use the winner's surname.

If you are not allowed to use the winner's surname, I suggest inviting her to pick a name. She can pick a name from her own culture.

  • @JoeStrazzere In most places I've worked, the person with ultimate decision power over building signs would not have time to organize a raffle. – Patricia Shanahan Oct 31 '18 at 23:09
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    @PatriciaShanahan On the contrary, those with any true authority in the core business do not have time to organize a raffle and also do not have time to come up with building signs, which is why it tends to get delegated. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 1 '18 at 14:57

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