Some Industries Encourage Workers to Use Pseudonyms

This article was originally published by Newhouse News Service on Wednesday, November 17, 2004.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2004 Newhouse News Service

The next time you call an 800 number for customer service and hear a friendly greeting from Jane Drew, think about whether her real name is Nancy Doe.

In industries as varied as telemarketing, debt collecting, retail sales and hotels, some workers on the front lines of customer contact use pseudonyms to protect their privacy and avoid harassment outside the job.

"There's some psycho people out there," said Jennifer Espada, a radio disc jockey in Olympia, Wash., who uses an alias on the air. "It's uncomfortable when people know my real name."

Those who adopt a pseudonym say it helps them deal with stressful situations at work for instance, remaining professional in the face of customer abuse. And for entrepreneurs with businesses in their homes given how easy computer databases make it to find people the tactic may be the only way to keep strangers from showing up on their doorsteps.

"In this day and age of cyberstalking, I think the use of aliases is going to occur more," said David Howe, founder of Acupoll Research Inc., a market research company headquartered in Cincinnati. Howe uses fake names to screen out unwanted callers.

Tax collectors who worked under their actual names have had phony liens filed against their homes or have been subscribed to pornographic magazines by disgruntled taxpayers, said Richard Yancey, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based author who wrote about his use of an alias in the memoir "Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS."

At Afni Inc., a Bloomington, Ill.-based collection agency, all 200 collectors have pseudonyms, said Debra J. Ciskey, director of the performance development group.

Once, a new collector didn't want to "hide behind" a fake name, and used his real name. It wasn't long before a debtor tracked him down outside work.

"I have a tape of a death threat he got on his answering machine at home. If you get hold of somebody who is mad that's all it takes," Ciskey said. "He was the nicest guy, a very civil collector."

The collectors keep a single "desk name" as long as they're with the company. The firm registers the aliases with those states that require it and employees understand that it's not license to behave badly they still could be sued personally over abusive debt collection practices.

Afni discourages people from picking their favorite soap opera character or movie star, and instead suggests adopting a common surname while keeping their real first name. "We pick something simple, easy to pronounce, easy to spell," Ciskey said.

Sometimes a new moniker helps employees develop assertive techniques to demand that bills be paid, even if their natural personality is more passive, she said.

Michelle St. Claire, a private investigator in San Diego, used two pseudonyms when she worked in collections.

"One was my collector name and one was my voice of reason," St. Claire recalled. "A lot of times someone will come in confrontational and wanting to pick a fight. I can stand up and say, 'I'm sorry, Debbie's not here, but maybe I can help you.' It was strictly to keep from getting the living crap choked out of me."

Going by an alias can help collectors remove themselves to a professional distance when dealing with such emotional issues as debt.

"Unfortunately out of 100 calls you make, 95 of the people are going to have a sob story," St. Claire explained. "It's not your job to sit and listen to their sob story, so you have to stop it before it begins. Creating that other person is a way of sheltering yourself; it's a self-defense mechanism.

"From the time I walk through the door in the morning, Michelle does not exist," she said.

Yancey had to confiscate property and close down small businesses in 12 years as an IRS tax collector. IRS officers were advised to mentally leave work at the office to avoid burnout and marital problems, he said.

"You're dealing with people who are pretty desperate," Yancey said. "You enter people's lives at a very low point and if you're not able to create that psychic distance, it can really get to you.

"In a psychological sense it made the work I had to do a little bit easier. It wasn't Rick Yancey taking these actions, it was this alter ego," he said.

Furthermore, it's easier to shrug off abuse when someone's yelling a name that doesn't belong to you, Yancey said.

In fact, there is a danger that using a fake name makes you forget that it's real life. "I probably took more stringent enforcement actions under a pseudonym than when I operated under my real name," Yancey said.

Some collectors get so attached to their aliases that they put the names on their resumes and take them along when they change jobs, said William Murphy, a recruiter in the collection industry based on Long Island, N.Y.

"A lot of the individuals I've talked to have kept that name and are even referred to by that name at work," said Murphy, who himself went by his favorite pro soccer player's name when he worked in collections.

Some companies require employees to pick a new name if someone with the same first name already works there, to cut down on customer confusion. John Pohlman, an information technology manager in East Granby, Conn., went by Daniel when he worked for such a firm. The business owned a book of baby names in case workers got stumped when choosing their monikers.

Esther Goldenberg, whose company, LittleBeam, makes breastfeeding pillows, worries that people will track her down at home where she works beside her 3-year-old daughter. But at the same time, she wants customers to easily buy her wares.

"I often feel like I am walking this very dangerous tightrope," Goldenberg said. "I want LittleBeam to be contacted for sales and Esther Goldenberg to be separate, just as any other employee would be separate. Because my office is my home and involves my family, it's not separate like another job. If someone comes after LittleBeam, they're endangering my family as well."

While she's thought about using a fake name, she doesn't know how she would explain it to her daughter, who overhears most of her business phone calls. But she has taken the precaution of unlisting her home phone and removing her address from the Web site.

Jennifer, who asked that her last name not be published, runs an Internet business from her home in Missouri while caring for her 2-year-old son. One day a stranger showed up at her front door, unannounced, wanting to buy baby products. "He expected to be able to come into my house, and I was alone," she said. "That leaves you feeling violated."

After that experience, Jennifer got a toll-free number that isn't associated with her address. She refrains from giving her last name to customers.

"As women in business, it's a wise idea to be careful about the information we release to the world," she said.