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Disruptive phone calls lead to uncivil workplace

Published on Friday, 01 Nov 2013
Photo: iStockphoto

We all sneak a peak at text messages or e-mails to pass the time in boring meetings. We’d also probably all admit, however, that we find it irritating when others do the same. Interestingly though, a new study from researchers at Howard University and the University of Southern California in the US finds big differences in who’s bothered by it – and by how much.

The study, published in the journal Business Communication Quarterly, asked 204 staff at an East Coast beverage distributor and 350 US professionals in a random survey to weigh in on whether it bothered them if people checked their mobile phones.

The study found that people are particularly bothered by managers who take calls during meetings; men are nearly twice as likely as women to think it is okay to check text messages at a business lunch; and that even leaving your phone out on the table can be offensive to some people.

In the first sample, the researchers asked open-ended questions and evaluated the intensity of the responses and the number of times certain behaviours were mentioned. They noted that people were particularly upset when their managers took calls in front of them. Unsurprisingly, taking or making calls was cited most often as bothersome behaviour. A handful of people, though, said they thought even bringing a phone to a meeting showed disrespect.

In the second sample, respondents were asked to say how appropriate or inappropriate different behaviours were in both formal professional meetings and offsite business lunches. More than 75 per cent said that even checking for text messages was rarely or never appropriate. More than half thought checking the time on the phone, looking to see who’s call was coming in, bringing a phone to the meeting, or even excusing oneself to make a call was inappropriate in a formal meeting. At more informal lunches, those numbers dropped, but more than half still thought it was rude to look at a phone to check text messages or e-mails, while a third said the same about stepping away to answer a call.

The study gets more interesting when it compares the views of men and women, and people from different US regions. Roughly half of men said that it was okay to answer a call at a business lunch, but only a quarter of women said the same.

As for checking text messages, more than 59 per cent of men were comfortable with it at informal lunches, while just a third of women were. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that while about two-thirds of people under 30 approved of texting at a business lunch, just 20 per cent of those between the ages of 51 and 65 thought it was acceptable behaviour.

Interestingly, professionals in the west coast of the US – home to Silicon Valley and Hollywood – were less accepting of phones being used during meetings than east-coasters.

The authors don’t suggest why women or west-coasters were more likely to consider mobile phones in meetings taboo. The paper does, though, focus on how mobile phones have contributed to an increasingly uncivil workplace. They cited a 2012 study that showed that hiring managers now value courtesy even more than other traditional soft skills, such as teamwork or professionalism. So leave your mobile phone behind for meetings and lunches – or at least off the table. Washington Post

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