Q. I work for my family business. My mother is one of my bosses. I always refer to her by her name when talking to customers: “Let me transfer you to Terry,” etc.
I had a customer in my office, and I needed mom’s help with a problem. While she was in my office, I called her “Mom.” After she left, the customer told me that it was very inappropriate to refer to her as “Mom” in the presence of a client. All I said was, “but she IS my mom.” So here is my question: Is he right, and should I refer to her as Terry when in the presence of a customer? I felt it was disrespectful to her to call her by her first name when speaking to her. I also felt it was very rude and condescending of the client to make the comment he made.
A. Family businesses present unique problems especially when parents and children work together. We face the same dilemma at The Emily Post Institute: my wife, my sister, my daughters and my sister’s son all work for us. While talking in a business context, the children address and refer to their parents by the parents’ first names. Doing so, especially when non-family members—either co-workers or clients—are present helps to prevent any sense of special status being conferred on the children. We are particularly sensitive to the issue that all employees— family and non-family— are treated equally. One way for a family business to keep the playing field level between the family and non-family members is to have everyone call each other by their first names whenever non-family people are present. Confusion on your customer’s part may have been caused by your referring to your mother as “Terry” when referring to her and then calling her “Mom” in her presence. Consistency both when referring to her and when talking directly to her in the presence of others will prevent any confusion.
As for your customer calling you out for having called your mom, “Mom,” he made a mistake. First of all, it’s not his place to set the standards by which your business operates. If you and your mom have determined that calling her “Mom” in a business setting is acceptable, then it’s not his prerogative to chastise you for that decision. Second, the fact that he did comment to you indicates a familiarity with you and your mother that transcends a business relationship. He equally has a responsibility not to cross that business/personal line.