BEHAVIOR
November 3, 2013

Smart Phones, Rude Coworkers

Cell phones make the business world go 'round, but they also derail many meetings and sometimes, careers.

You're in a meeting, and you've been waiting for an email or a call regarding a work-related issue, so you pull out your cell phone to check your messages and email. Depending on the age of your boss and your co-workers, you could succeed in annoying everyone in the room.

A recent workplace study found there's a great divide between young and old, and between men and women, over what constitutes rude cell phone use.

Let the finger pointing begin.

Rude cell phone usage in society is already legendary. But there's been little research into what business professionals perceive as rude or acceptable cell phone use in the workplace — the rules of engagement, so to speak. Researchers from Howard University and USC set out to try to pin down these perceptions in two separate studies.

Older people are much less forgiving of cell phone use than younger people; so were higher income professionals.

They apparently opened the floodgates when they first asked 200+ employees of one large beverage distributor the open-ended question, “Have you observed disrespectful cell phone use in the workplace recently?” Everybody had a story to tell.

Managers were often the worst offenders. Employees described waiting 10 or 15 minutes at a meeting for their manager to finish a phone call before the meeting could continue. Others described how meetings were thoroughly disrupted because of a coworker's need to take a phone call.

Most notable in this exploratory study was the overwhelming tendency to point to cell phone use at meetings as annoying. Equally notable was the intensity of the worker comments.

It's not surprising, really. When people take calls or text in a meeting, they are in effect saying to the other participants, I have something more important (than you) to attend to. Not a good way to develop social support.

To get a deeper understanding of the results, the researchers asked business professionals to rate the appropriateness of eight specific types of cell phone use at business meetings, from making or answering calls to merely bringing the phone along to the meeting.

Ratings were on a four point-scale: always/usually, sometimes, rarely, or never appropriate. And workers rated appropriateness at both formal business meetings and at less formal business lunches.

When it was a formal meeting, most people found every type of cell phone-related behavior inappropriate (rarely or never appropriate), from making or answering a call (87%) to simply bringing the phone (56%).

People were a bit more tolerant about business lunches: only 61% found making or answering calls inappropriate. Only one-third or less found four behaviors — bringing the phone along, checking incoming calls, checking the time or excusing oneself to make a call — inappropriate.

The demographic differences are especially instructive. Older people are much less forgiving of cell phone use than younger people. As an example, 51% of people aged 21-30 think it's usually okay to check texts or emails during a formal business meeting. Only 16% of people over 50 agree. So if your boss is older, resist the vibration in your pocket.

Similarly, women in the study find cell phone use ruder than men do. At a business lunch, 50% of men find answering a call sometimes or usually appropriate, while only 26% of women agree. For writing or sending texts, those numbers are 43% and 23%.

The attitude difference between older and younger people held for both formal and informal meetings, while the gender differential was only observed for cell phone use at informal meetings.

Are younger people ruder than older people or are older people hopelessly behind the times? That's one question the study can't answer.

Other findings were that professionals on the West Coast were less accepting of cell phone use at meetings than professionals on the East Coast were. And professionals with higher income were less accepting of cell phone use than professionals with lower income.

The study's findings offer a trove of anecdotes for sociologists, stand-up comics or any student of self-centered behavior. It also offers a compelling reason to leave the phone behind when going to your next meeting.

“Perceptions of Civility for Mobile Phone Use in Formal and Informal Meetings” appears in Business Communication Quarterly.

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