Phone Ban in the Office: Efficiency Vs. Mutiny

Linda Jagiela
Posted on November 15, 2013

I recently made a sales call to a large corporation which was bought out by an even larger company. My contact was the administrative assistant to the CEO who had been with the company 25 years. I loved going to see Gloria. She’s a tough no-holds barred type of Philly girl with a lot of street smarts. I was surprised when she greeted me without her usual smile and light banter. It seems the new management had implemented some new rules that weren’t popular with Gloria. The sign said, “Employees please leave your cell phone in your vehicle. No cell phones permitted beyond this point.” She pointed to it. “If you know anyone looking for an old goat like me, let me know,” she half-joked. “I didn’t sign up for prison life.”

Before meeting with Gloria, I had never considered the effects of banning cell phones in an office. They have become a part of the culture and I can’t imagine being too far from my own. It would be like losing a limb not to have it. That said; the idea is growing on me — sort of.

The Cell Phone Distraction
I often have walked in on dispatchers and reservationists playing on their cell phones or sending text messages. Some are talking on them. Most are not doing it blatantly when the boss is around, but when the cat’s away they are out and in use.

Today, cell phones are not just communications devices but rather entertainment centers. Books, movies and TV programs can be downloaded onto them. You can use them to surf the Internet, get email, play games and even act as a GPS. Ask any kid what he is doing on a smartphone and he’ll show you the latest app.

Cell phones are obviously distractions on the job. When your staff is using personal phones, they are not working. Legally, you must provide breaks which are the appropriate times for employees to use their phones, but this is not the norm in most offices. I was shocked to hear a loud ring tone in my office playing an offensive song. My staff just laughed when they heard it but I was offended by the foul language. I recognized the need for a policy that would shield my business from the risks of personal cell phones in the office.  

Camera Phones
Camera phones are yet another level of problems. Rights to privacy vary among states. Camera phones create risks to sensitive company information and trade secrets.
I remember doing airport checks of chauffeurs. One of my chauffeurs was lounging in a seat sound asleep when we came upon him. The flight he was waiting for was delayed an hour and he took the opportunity to catch a cat nap.
I took a photo from my phone of the unsuspecting man to use later when doing training. But think about this: What photos are being taken when the subject doesn’t know it is occurring? Are you at risk if photos at work are posted on social media sites? How about when a reservationist takes a picture of the overweight electrician showing his low-slung dungarees in your office and puts it on Facebook? Above the man is the company logo on your wall loudly promoting your brand. New case law is being written daily about candid photos being posted on social media sites. Avoid the hassle and just ban camera phone use in the office.
 Cell Phones and Family
This is where the “sort of” and mutiny pieces come in. There has to be balance. For the sake of workplace morale and staff retention, you should allow some calls between employees and family members. But this should be the exception not the rule. As I spent plenty of years as a single parent, I can respect the need of parents to periodically check on their children during the day. Having that peace of mind actually will increase productivity. On the other hand, as an employer, you don’t pay employees to converse with family and friends. Planning a social life and hearing about non-emergency dilemmas should be reserved for phone calls outside of the workday.

It is especially important if there is an emergency situation or anticipated emergency situation to be reasonable. Those phones should be left on vibrate and used only for this reason.
Establishing and enforcing a cell phone policy has become more important both to ensure employee performance and to shield companies from lawsuits and liabilities. Crafting a policy which works for your business will take a thorough evaluation of your practices and employee expectations. Your goal is always to protect your company from internal and external risks. Doing this while keeping your staff happy and motivated is the divide the business owner will need to straddle.

Things to Consider For A Cell Phone Policy

  • Make sure you give your employees the opportunity to take breaks and lunches. Although this is the law, we have all seen busy reservation and dispatch offices where the employees are eating at their desks. Make sure your policy does not punish that dedication.
  • Understand that cell phones in general are a distraction. Any call in the office can be overheard. Think about the woman in the grocery store line who gives advice on how to treat hemorrhoids — YUCK! Encourage employees to make common sense decisions when using cell phones in the office.  
  • Know your own cell phone usage. If you are going to put in this type of policy, you will need to lead by example. If you have a “do as I say not as I do” mentality, your policy will not work.
  • Understand the laws in your area. I am always surprised when dispatchers get upset because they can’t reach a chauffeur. If he is obeying the law, he is not speaking on the cell phone while driving. Technology is available (GPS tracking) that allows you to spot the chauffeur. If it is important to keep track of him, consider investing in it.
  • Be prepared to enforce any policy you put in place. If you only have a lean staff and can’t afford to lose the person, how will you enforce a policy that doesn’t have consequences? Small transportation companies face this dilemma daily.

Related Topics: cellphones, communications, employee issues, employee management, employee perks, human resources, office equipment, smartphones

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