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Working to the Beat

By Rita Zeidner  7/1/2008
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Managers at AMX, a designer of high-end remote controls in the tech corridor outside Dallas, mention an unusual employee benefit when recruiting promising young job candidates: workday access to an automated closed-circuit radio station that plays employees’ choice of tunes.

Wearing headphones, workers can listen to the station through their computers and even hear music as they move around the office. Wired for sound, the 13,000-square-foot building has speakers in most public areas.

“We want to make the workspace as comfortable as possible so it’s a place where you want to be,” says Steve Byars, vice president for administration at AMX. “Music is part of the culture here.”

While few companies boast a sound system such as the one at AMX, advocates praise the music trend for boosting productivity and morale. Others fear it as a safety risk that also eats away at team-building opportunities.

To be sure, music hits a high note in the office: In the United States, nearly one-third of employees work while listening to music via an iPod, MP3 player or similar personal music device, according to a 2006 poll conducted by Harris Interactive for Spherion, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., staffing company.

Not surprisingly, it’s mostly younger workers who drive the trend. Indeed, some 90 percent of workers ages 18 to 24, and 89 percent of those 30 to 39, said music improves their job satisfaction or productivity, according to the Harris poll. Only about one-quarter of baby boomers made the same claim.


Dancing to the Rhythm

Many employers say allowing music generally is a no-brainer. Only 7 percent of employers responding to a 2006 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management said they had a policy addressing the use of iPods and similar devices at work.

Nevertheless, supporters and opponents of music in the office make their cases with the passion of a Beethoven sonata.

Joining AMX in support of a workplace permissive of music are employers such as The Right Thing, a 4-year-old Ohio recruiting firm. President Terry Terhark allows employees to listen to music at their desks, but they are presumed to recognize they should wear headphones to avoid bothering others. For employees who answer phones throughout the day, listening to music on headphones may not be practical, but Terhark hasn’t instituted a formal ban.

Fierce competition for employees drives the unwritten policy to allow headphones at Prologue Research in Columbus, Ohio, according to HR Director Mariann Stopyra.

Stopyra isn’t shy about interrupting someone working with headphones on. “I just go and tap on the cube wall,” she says.

Some young workers find employers’ permissive attitudes toward headphones a refreshing change from more-restrictive rules of parents and teachers.

“At first, I thought it was really odd that everyone was wearing iPods in the office,” says Melanie Sikic, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Findlay in Ohio, who spent last semester working as an accounting management intern for Corporate Research International, an Ohio-based mystery shopping and consumer satisfaction firm. “I didn’t realize they were allowed, but I think it’s a really good idea.”

No problem if a co-worker she needed to reach was also wearing headphones.

“I would just send an instant message,” she says.


Sour Chord

Not everyone sings high praises for a tuneful workplace.

John Garber, a risk-management consultant in Pennsylvania, generally discourages clients from allowing music or headphones.

In an industrial setting, workers need to hear the sounds of alarms, co-workers shouting warnings or malfunctioning machinery. To the chagrin of workers doing routine or menial jobs, he admonishes that distracted workers can be more accident-prone and less attentive to the quality of their work.

He also has a disappointing response for industrial and construction workers who have asked if they could replace required, noise-muffling headphones with music of their choice: “You can’t be protecting employees from high-hazard noise levels by covering up the noise with rock or rap,” he says. “Music is not an acceptable form of hearing protection.”

Some employers discourage or prohibit headphones if workers have contact with or are in view of customers, fearing that the sight may turn off customers.

The best way to avoid a misunderstanding about office music policies—and possibly a lawsuit—may be to have a written policy spelling out such things as the types of jobs where music and headphones aren’t safe or appropriate, some lawyers say. That may prevent workers barred from wearing headphones from claiming they have been arbitrarily singled out.

Specifying the type of material inappropriate for the workplace may also help to prevent discrimination or even hostile workplace claims from those offended by a co-worker’s sexually charged, violent or even religious choices of music.

Lastly, employees who download music off the Internet onto their employers’ computers may create a whole different host of practical and legal problems.

Rita Zeidner is a senior writer for HR Magazine.


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