What's in a nickname at work?

Professor Lucy Taksa
Michael Yiannakis
24 September 2019
Macquarie Business School


While many nicknames are often a sign of inclusion, in the workplace they can be used to exert control or to help workmates band together.

Many of us have known a 'Johnno', 'Tiny' or even a 'Shazza' in our lives. We even have a 'ScoMo' leading the country. Nicknames are a common part of the Australian cultural and social landscape after all.

Scott Morrison

What's in a name? Prime Minister Scott Morrison has become well-known for his 'ScoMo' nickname.

But while they are often a sign of acceptance and inclusion, some nicknames can be derogatory, cruel and used as a tool of control or belittlement.

Professor Lucy Taksa from Macquarie University’s Business School says the majority of nicknames do involve wry humour and identity and are part of the Australian culture. They often transcend into the wider population, especially in the fields of politics, business and sport.

Reg Withers, a former Fraser government minister, was known as 'The Toecutter' for his tough approach in the party room and for his role in the 1975 constitutional crisis. 'Chainsaw' Al Dunlap, a US executive once employed by Australian billionaire Kerry Packer, adopted a ruthless cost-cutting approach to business. And the quietly spoken former Test cricketer, Ashley Mallett, was ironically known as 'Rowdy' for his quiet disposition.

Nicknames in the workplace

Taksa, who has written extensively on workplace relations issues, says nicknames not only seek to subvert power structures between workers and their managers but can also be used among workers to convey views and expectations.

Nicknames convey impressions, expectations and assessments about the performance of fellow workers and managers.

“In other words, nicknaming involves actions taken by individuals and groups to develop a language that constructs identities and relationships,” Taksa says.

Derogatory nicknames may also be used to exert social control or to express social solidarity among workers.

Lucy Taksa, Macquarie Business School

Word of warning: Nicknames in the workplace can be used to create an 'us v them' environment, says Taska.

“Nicknames convey impressions, expectations and assessments about the performance of fellow workers and managers, and in doing so, they provide social tools that can be used to keep co-workers in line,” she says.

While nicknames are often tied to camaraderie in the workplace, they are sometimes disparaging. Derogatory nicknames are powerful regulators of behaviour and an effective mechanism of social control “because they demand conformity to the cultural ideals that define the community in which they are uttered”.

Some labels can provide an indication of the attitudes workers have about their colleagues and the way they can be used as a tool to influence the behaviour of others by “condoning and/or shaming those who conform to, or defy, informal rules”.

For instance, at the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops in Sydney, one worker who had a reputation for dragging his feet was called 'Speed', while another who always complained about having a 'tonne of work was labelled “Tunna”.

“Although these nicknames are clearly born from local experiences and events, they share common themes across time and place,” Taksa says.

Us v Them

Nicknames serve another purpose and that is to help distinguish insiders from outsiders and enhance a work group’s sense of identity and unity.

“The nicknames workers give each other and supervisors provide a means for them to share views about the behaviours of co-workers and individual managers while also reinforcing the distinction between ‘us and them’,” Taksa says.

Nicknaming operates as a tool of insider communication as workers construct identities to bond with each other and to enforce informal rules of behaviour.

When used in a derogatory form towards an employer, nicknames allow employees “to address the tensions and conflicts arising from formal organisational practices, rules, managerial imperatives and workplace relations”. They are often used to highlight the distance between management and the workforce.

Humour has a key role to play as it is typically used to control the tension in social relationships and addresses conflict situations by acting as a circuit breaker.

Colleagues laughing

Lighthearted fun?: Not all nicknames cause trouble, says Taksa - the majority do involve wry humour and identity.

In one food production factory, two individual managers were labelled “The Shadow” and “The Helium Balloon” due to the workers’ experience of only seeing the manager’s shadow passing by, or the sudden departure of a manager like a balloon that flies away and disappears with a ‘whoosh’.

Taksa says through this process, nicknaming operates as a tool of insider communication as workers construct identities to bond with each other and to enforce informal rules of behaviour.

Professor Lucy Taksa is Co-Director of the Centre for Workforce Futures at Macquarie University’s Business School. The Australian Financial Review named her as one of the 100 Women of Influence for 2019.


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