Work for an Over-40 Female Boss in Texas? Hide the Phone at Meetings

Disapproval of texting and Web surfing varies by age, gender, status and region, study finds

By Dana Wilkie Nov 25, 2013

If you’re a woman over 40 earning around six figures and working in the Southwest, then you’re probably the most likely to get annoyed when workers text, surf the Internet or take calls on their mobile phones during meetings.

That’s among the findings of a recent Howard University and University of Southern California study that examined what U.S. professionals consider appropriate behavior during work meetings.

The study, Perceptions of Civility for Mobile Phone Use in Formal and Informal Meetings, reveals stark gender, age and regional differences when it comes to perceptions about using smartphones.

For instance, women are twice as likely as men to be offended by smartphone use during meetings, while professionals in the West are far less accepting of this activity during meetings than those on the East Coast. And those with higher incomes tend to look askance at the practice more often than lower-wage earners.

The report, published online Oct. 24, 2013, by Business Communication Quarterly, was based on two studies: one that surveyed 204 employees at a beverage distributor on the East Coast and a random survey of 350 professionals nationwide.

“Courtesy [such as] manners, business etiquette, graciousness, respectfulness is among the most important soft skills sought after by hiring managers, even more important than soft skills such as responsibility, interpersonal skills, positive attitude, professionalism, work ethic, and teamwork skills,” the report authors wrote.

Little Research on Phone Use

While previous research has examined the impact that cellphone use has on productivity, there’s little scholarly research about the social norms associated with its use in the workplace, according to the authors. Moreover, the researchers wrote, studies about mobile phone use in meetings tend to focus only on a few behaviors—taking or making calls, for instance—but don’t break down findings by gender, income or region.

In the surveys, respondents were asked to rate the appropriateness of eight cellphone actions during informal and formal meetings: making or answering calls; writing and sending texts or e-mails; checking texts or e-mails; browsing the Internet; checking the time; checking incoming calls; bringing a phone to meetings; and excusing oneself to answer calls.

More than eight in 10 respondents said they consider making or answering a call or writing and sending texts or e-mails rarely or never acceptable during formal meetings. More than three in four consider checking texts or e-mails and browsing the Internet rarely or never acceptable in formal meetings.

And 66 percent of respondents deemed texting rude even at more informal business lunches.

Many made statements such as “People are so inconsiderate,” “Disrespectful mobile phone usage is everywhere,” and “It is very disruptive.” The intensity of these comments was stronger when talking about what managers do.

Age and Gender Differences

The surveys found that younger workers (those 21 to 30 years old) were more than three times as likely as those over 40 to consider it appropriate to check text messages and e-mails during formal meetings.

As for informal meetings, strong majorities of the younger employees consider it acceptable to check text messages and e-mails, answer calls, and write text messages and e-mails. But strong majorities of those over 40 consider these actions inappropriate.

“One of the more interesting findings was the major gender gap in perceived appropriateness of mobile phone actions,” the authors wrote, noting that more than 59 percent of men said it is OK to check text messages at a power lunch, compared with 34 percent of women.

Status and Region

Workers with higher incomes are less accepting of mobile phone use in meetings, the study found.

“We suspect that one explanation is that higher-income professionals are often in higher-status positions,” the authors wrote. “They may be more sensitive to subordinates who distract attention away from them during meetings.”

Those in the West are far less accepting of cellphone use in informal meetings than those on the East Coast. Professionals in the Southwest are the least accepting.

“A possible explanation for more sensitivity to mobile phone use in the Southwest may be the emphasis on hospitality and manners,” the authors said. “We are less sure about a possible explanation for lower acceptance for mobile phone behaviors among professionals in the West.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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