Study Links Hand-Held Devices to Poor Workplace Manners

By Howard Mann Feb 23, 2010
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​Cell phones, smart phones, hand-held devices, laptops and other mobile electronic gadgets are becoming ubiquitous in the workplace, giving employees unprecedented access and connectivity. But it appears that frequent use of the gadgets can decrease employees’ manners.

According to a recent U.S.-based study by Robert Half Technology, 51 percent of chief information officers report a rise in poor workplace etiquette linked to the increased usage of mobile electronic devices.

The findings come as no surprise to David Zinger, a management consultant who specializes in employee engagement.

“People might not mean to be impolite or insensitive,” Zinger said. “But that’s the end result. I always say, ‘don’t be a thumb-body when you’re with somebody.’”

The survey was based on telephone interviews with more than 1,400 CIOs from companies across the United States with 100 or more employees. Asked about the effects of mobile electronics, 29 percent said breaches in workplace etiquette during the past three years had increased somewhat; 22 percent said breaches had increased significantly. Forty-two percent said they detected no difference.

‘Your Undivided Attention’

Dave Wilmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, said it’s easy to offend people unintentionally considering the pace of movement at times.

“While electronic gadgets are designed to make employees more productive, they may serve as a distraction,” Wilmer said. “Although the rules of tech etiquette vary from business to business, it’s always a good idea to give people you’re collaborating with your undivided attention.”

Lydia Ramsey, a business etiquette expert, said she recently saw a classic case of rudeness as part of a three-person team conducting a job interview.

“A team member turned it over to me for questions,” she said. “I started talking and [the team member] started texting away. I’m thinking, ‘You’re a senior executive, and that’s offensive.’ It wasn’t one of their employees,” Ramsey said, referring to the candidate. “But it was someone they were trying to hire, and it was offensive. [The candidate] noticed it, too, and that was a turnoff.”

Robert Half Technology identified five types of tech-etiquette offenders:

The Misguided Multitasker, who thinks e-mailing and texting during meetings demonstrates efficiency.

The E-mail Addict, who uses a constant stream of e-mails, instant messages and texts to communicate all of her needs.

The Broadcaster, who uses his cell phone anytime and anywhere—to discuss anything.

The Cyborg, who keeps a wireless earpiece or headphones plugged in constantly.

The Distractor, whose phone buzzes loudly and repeatedly on his desk or in meetings.

Meg Langland, director of career services at Westminster Collegein Missouri, trains students to think differently about electronic devices upon entering the workforce. “This might be the first time they’ve ever had to limit their texting, e-mail access or cell-phone use,” she said. “I believe they’re interested in improving their behavior, but they have to know what the rules are.”

Zinger said the challenge of proper tech etiquette is making good transitions from screens to the people surrounding you and in front of you.

“In any transition, the first thing that happens is something has to end,” he said. “Can you end your focus on the screen or a person, and then reverse it? Is it a motivational thing, or a skill thing? Sometimes we’re just impervious to it; other times it’s a structural matter of focusing on what’s going.

“But if you’re the CEO or president and you pull out a BlackBerry as a meeting is going on, you’re pretty much saying to everyone else in the organization that it’s OK to do.”

Howard Mann is a freelance writer.

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