Monday Mornings with Madison



Last week, we began a series on the rules of etiquette at the workplace in the age of technology. With the advent of technological devices, such as cell phones, instant messaging, email and the like, the rules of office etiquette are less clear. We posed the question: what is appropriate behavior when it comes to use of technology tools at work? 

For some, anything goes. Some check emails during business meetings. Some answer cell phones during conferences. Some will send tons of personal text messages while at work. Some will even respond to instant messages while on phone calls with staff or clients (and simultaneously answer emails). Indeed, many professionals use technology whenever and wherever they want without any thought to how it may offend others. Rather than improve communication, technology is being used in ways that detract from positive interactions with others. It is ironic, indeed, that technology designed to make life easier is making interactions between people more uneasy. If the measure of good manners and breeding is the ability to make others feel more at ease, then it is vital to understand and follow the rules of etiquette related to the use of technology at work.

This week, we’ll examine the rules of office etiquette related to the use of cell phones. There probably isn’t a person working in the U.S. today that doesn’t have at least one cell phone. According to Federal Trade Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, who testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in July, 2009, there are over 270 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S. Given that the U.S. population was estimated to be just over 307 million in 2009, basically 87.4% of people in the U.S. were cell phone subscribers. In fact, cell phones are quickly replacing the traditional land line as the average family’s ‘home number.’

Given the ubiquitous nature of cell phones, it is important to know the rules for when, where and how to use a cell phone at work. Ask yourself, have you screened calls you should have otherwise answered? Did you reply to missed calls with text messages? Have you prayed to reach voicemail on calls that you have to (but don’t want to) make? When you called someone and they didn’t answer, and you knew they looked at their phone and made a decision to ignore your call, were you okay with that because – in all likelihood – at some point in the day you did the same thing to someone else? Have you used your cell phone during a meeting?  What about at a conference? Have you answered personal cell phone calls at work? What is okay and what isn’t? Ultimately, the greatest and most exploited feature of the cell phone is that no one calling you really knows where you are and what you’re doing. Therein lies the basis for many cell phone etiquette rules. Again, the idea is to put the other person at ease. Here are a few rules to follow.

1. Call screening
There are many times when you simply cannot answer your phone. But if you screen your calls too often, you will get a reputation for being ‘unreachable.’ Think of the story of the boy who cried wolf. Do it too often and no one will believe you were really busy. If you must screen calls, don’t be disgracefully obvious and do it in moderation.

2. Missed calls
There are times when you will legitimately miss a call. If it’s a call you wanted to take, you’ll return it immediately. However, there is a time limit on whether a person has an obligation to pick up your return call. If you return a missed call within thirty seconds, your call should be answered. Screening looks bad in that situation. If you call back five minutes later, the person has the legitimate right to give an excuse for why they weren’t able to take your return call.

3. Text Message in lieu of a return call
Replying to a missed call with a text message is acceptable, though it is a clear indication you prefer not to talk. Of course, there may be good reasons for that. You could be in a meeting, an elevator, or getting on a bus or train (see below). Sending a text message is an acceptable alternative to say that you saw the call and wanted to take it but couldn’t.

4. Cell calls during meetings
It is inevitable that busy professionals will have cell phones ring during meetings. The polite thing to do is to put the phone on vibrate or silence during a meeting so it does not disturb others. If there is an important call you must take, apologize and step out of the room during the call. The same applies to calls at conferences, continuing education classes and networking gatherings. If you can’t resist answering every call during a meeting, turn it off.

5. Deliberately Dropped Calls
Intentionally dropping a call when a conversation goes south (either poorly, too long, or both) is one of the most common tricks in the book… but also one of the rudest. While it is basically impossible for the other person to know if you simply ended the call, you will get a terrible reputation for being conniving if someone else is witness to it. If the conversation must end immediately, say so.

6. Talking in Public
Rudy Giuliani did a great service to New York City when he curbed car horn abuse. The same should go for cell phone abuse. There are a few particularly bad places to talk on a cell, such as a bus, train, or elevator, (any place where people are cramped and space is limited) but none is worse than your cubicle at work.  Coworkers are sitting nearby and there’s really no escape. Yapping on your cell phone about personal issues while others are trying to work makes a difficult situation even worse. If you must use your phone, stand up and walk to the break room, hallway or kitchen… or just step outside.

7. Lengthy Voicemail Messages
The entire system of voice messages is too long. When reaching a voicemail, it is obvious the person can’t take the call and would like you to leave your name, number, and a brief message. You didn’t need to hear that. So the last thing you should do in return, when finally reaching the beep, is to leave a long message. Keeping it short will be appreciated.

8. Ring Tones
A ring tone is humorous the first time it is played and has a window of three subsequent rings before it becomes annoying. That said, it is best to keep unique ring tones to yourself, put your phone on vibrate or use a generic ring tone for work.

“Nothing is less important than which fork you use. That is not the heart of etiquette. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.” Emily Post

© 2010 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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