Cell Phone Etiquette in the Business World

Seven out of 10 Americans report observing poor cell phone manners every day. A third of over 5,000 workers polled by Yahoo HotJobs admit to checking their email during work meetings. Just a decade ago, it would be inconceivable to imagine a business meeting in which three-quarters of the attendees were surfing the Internet, answering letters of correspondence or having private conversations of some kind. It would have been unthinkable in terms of professionalism, productivity, and just plain respect. But it’s the norm today.

Smartphone use at work spans gender and generation, private and public sectors. Researcher Steve Levine says, “I suspect the functionality and ease-of-use of these devices lead us to become lazy and to lose awareness of ourselves, others and our surroundings.” That, and the fact that everyone else is doing it makes bad cell phone manners commonplace.

cellphone etiquette

Consider these examples. During a Publisher’s Marketing Association conference, a panel member stopped his presentation to answer his cell phone, holding up proceedings and subjecting the audience to his private conversation.

Marketing executive Rowland Hobbs didn’t think much about his client fiddling with this cell phone during the first 30 minutes of their meeting but after an hour and a half, he wondered what the man could be doing. It turned out, he was playing video games. Hobbs didn’t comment on the man’s behavior but how could it not impact on their business relationship?

Billionaire Tom Golisano pushed to have Malcolm Smith removed as the State Senate Majority Leader. Why? Because during a budget meeting with Golisano earlier that year, the senator spent time reading emails on his Blackberry.

And what about lost sales because of compromised customer service? How likely are you to wait around for a salesman to finish a cell phone conversation? Or want to deal with someone as they conduct a simultaneous conversation with someone else on an earpiece? How many mistakes in customer orders are likely because an employee is distracted with reading text messages?

There’s a debate going on about cell phone etiquette. One side believes using Smartphones during meetings is rude and unprofessional. Others believe that not answering client messages in real time means hurting their relationships and losing deals.

Executive Director of ePolicy Institute Nancy Flynn says, “People mistakenly think that tapping is not as distracting as talking. In fact, it can be every bit as much, if not more, distracting. And it’s pretty insulting to the speaker.”

Media consultant David Brotherton says, “Clients assume they can get you anytime, anywhere. Consultants who aren’t readily available 24/7 tend to languish.”

Flying Television founder Lori Levine instructed her employees to take meeting notes on their Blackberrys rather than on paper only to receive an angry call from her client afterwards about how inattentive they were.

Brotherton says that Smartphone signal a kind of status symbol in business. Attendees lay out their phones on the table like gunfighters placing their revolvers on saloon tables. He insists this is a way for the person to warn: “I’m connected. I’m busy. I’m important. And if this meeting doesn’t hold my interest, I’ve got 10 other things I can do instead.”

Nancy Flynn says that while we have to consider that cell phone is the primary way people communicate today, it’s important to have a clear and realistic policy in place at your business. You must delineate what cell phone issues are present in your company. Is the office too noisy because of multiple conversations? Do you find employees texting when there’s a deadline approaching? Does something come of meetings or do they seem a waste of time? What about errors and productivity? Communication failures?

The type of company you run and how important availability is will also influence your cell phone policy. A construction company and a marketing business will have very different needs in terms of availability and timeliness of communications.

Other issues to define? Ringer versus vibrate functions, stepping out of meetings to take important calls, appropriateness of ring tones, when it is not okay to use a cell phone, when and where personal calls can be made and their extent.

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