We need to stop naming people at work

By Eli Altman
March 11, 2019
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Filed under Naming, Popular

People at Google are Googlers. People at Twitter are Tweeps. People at Amazon are Amazonians. These names feel like they are coming from a place of camaraderie and pride. There’s an element of shared experience. After all, you’re spending 40 (who are we kidding 50+) hours a week with these people. That’s more time than most people spend sleeping or with their families. But there’s something insidious about modifying a company’s name to apply it to the people who work there.

Primarily, applying a company’s name to its employees suppresses individuality. This surfaces in a few ways.

Many of the companies that name their employees are massive. They’re working with industry, government, military. The direct connection between company and employees indicates tacit support where it might not exist. There have been several high profile cases of employee backlash against questionable leadership decisions. When people who work at a company carry that company’s name they become unwilling accessories to these decisions whether they support them or not. Being an engineer at Microsoft provides a thin layer of insulation that being a Microsoftie* doesn’t. Being anchored in your job title provides some sense of autonomy. There are engineers everywhere. If you don’t like what your company is doing you can get up, leave, and be an engineer elsewhere. Or, much more likely, you can see yourself as somewhat distinct from the unfriendly decisions being made in your boardroom.

Another curious element of these names is how broadly they’re applied. Do Amazon delivery drivers and warehouse employees consider themselves Amazonians? Are these names about corporate culture or do they reach out into the capillaries of their operations? These names signal belonging but they also have the potential to signal exclusion simultaneously.

The named union of company and employees might not be all bad. When a company does something its employees don’t like, they are potentially more motivated to make their voices heard and push for change. Googlers weren’t happy about their technology being used to analyze drone footage and support airstrikes with Project Maven. They made their voices heard and leadership responded by not renewing their participation in the program. There are similar cases at Amazon, Microsoft, and elsewhere with concerns being raised about partnerships, harassment, and working conditions.

Would these issues be raised whether employees and companies shared a name or not? I would like to think so. But there is the possibility that the connection made the concerns more acute. I would actually argue that the inverse is true—where a culture that values individuality would make it easier for employees to speak their mind and be vocal about situations that don’t sit well with them.

These employees are part of broader communities in big urban areas where their employer’s presence is pervasive. Putting a little distance between company and employee is helpful when you’re trying to be a San Franciscan or Seattleite. Would you rather tell a new friend that you work in ad sales at Twitter or that you’re a Tweep? Exactly. This same separation is helpful at work. We all have our own skills, interests and beliefs that we bring to work everyday. These differences should be shared and celebrated. No company is actually a monolith.

It’s easy to see how employees at some companies end up being named. It’s supposed to feel fun and unifying but that doesn’t usually end up being the effect. The same concept applies when calling an office a campus. It’s intended to make the environment feel young and vibrant. It also happens to make it feel like somewhere you never need to leave which is convenient when long hours are the norm. In these cases naming feels like social engineering. And like most attempts at social engineering there are plenty of unintended consequences.

*Yes, you read that right, “Microsoftie.”