When does a nickname break the law?

While most nicknames can seem harmless, sometimes they can cross the line. We asked a local legal expert about how nicknames can put firms in trouble with the law

Although nicknames are generally used in a warm, friendly manner, they may get you on the wrong side of the law especially if used in an improper manner. HRD talked to Koh C-u Pinn, director at Arielle Law, about the legal intricacies behind nicknames at work and what HR should do to mitigate the risks involved.
Criminal charges
While there are no specific laws prohibiting nicknames at work, the law does prohibit racial and religious discrimination, she said.
“In the Penal Code, there are severe penalties for those who cause religious or racial disharmony.”
For instance, uttering racial or religious slurs with deliberate intent to hurt people’s feelings is an offence under Section 298 of the Penal Code, she said. This can carry a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years and/or a fine.
In these instances, TAFEP provides guidelines for reporting discrimination in the workplace.
Civil action
“Where a nickname is particularly offensive, there is also the possibility of a civil suit for defamation provided that all the elements for defamation can be satisfied,” Koh added.
Action would typically be against the colleague using the defamatory nickname and generally not the employer, she added. This is unless the company has committed the acts itself, ie if the person using the inflammatory nickname is seen to be acting on behalf of the company.
Outside of racial and religion slurs, the use of nicknames in the workplace has to be sufficiently drastic to warrant legal action, Koh said. The severity is typically measured by what the nickname actually is and the circumstances in which it is used.
Even if an employee takes out private civil action against the offending party however, emotional distress is quite difficult to prove.
“To take an action against the employer, the employee would also likely need to show why he did not manage to talk to the person who was calling him names,” she added. “After all in work environments, the employees are all mature adults and not young children in school.”
Preventative action
“Companies may wish to consider implementing internal policies, educating their staff during seminars and highlighting in their Employee Handbook the company’s stance against name-calling,” she said.
This can foster mutual harmony and respect in the workplace which will help HR mediate disputes in this regard, she added.
However, if a worker is seriously distressed by a particular nickname, there is no reason why HR should not be able to take action.
“If the employee is really unhappy and unable to manage, the employee can always speak to HR or his superior to try and get his colleague to stop calling him names,” she said.
Unless the name-caller is not interested in keeping his or her job, a simple warning from HR or an officer of the company should be enough to alleviate the problem, she added.
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