Office caution: Mind manners, not gadgets


Using your cell phone and other hand-held electronics in a movie theater or a restaurant booth can be construed as rude behavior - that's why many businesses forbid it. Now even workplaces are echoing a similar refrain: Mind your technology manners.

More companies are banning the use of BlackBerry devices, mobile phones and other portable technology in company and client meetings to better ensure that customers, clients and even bosses receive a worker's undivided attention.

Other employers are enforcing strict rules on workers using instant messaging and iPods in the office - a growing trend now that younger employees who grew up with the technology are entering the work force in greater numbers. And some are providing etiquette training on the finer points of the do's and don'ts.

Offenders insist that they're just multi-tasking in a business world that requires their constant attention. But the hope is to cut down on a familiar scene played out in offices worldwide: preoccupied managers and workers thumbing through hand-held devices in meetings or taking cell phone calls at business lunches.

J.J. Finkelstein of RegeneRX Biopharmaceuticals in Bethesda was so fed up with the distractions that he ordered changes. Executives posted a sign on a conference room door: "No phone zone. Check your cell phones and crackberries at the door, or they will be confiscated."

"So many people would come to the meeting and have their BlackBerry turned on and constantly fiddle with it while they're talking or you're talking," said Finkelstein, the company's president and chief executive officer. "It's hard to stay focused, and it's clearly rude. More than once, people have gotten annoyed."

Finkelstein said the sign is intended as a humorous way to combat the inappropriate behavior - and he hasn't had to take anything away yet.

Having appropriate technology etiquette promotes professionalism and reduces misunderstandings with customers and colleagues, workplace experts and employers say. Otherwise, poor technology manners just leave a bad impression.

Melissa Maffettone, branch manager of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office of the Robert Half Technology staffing firm, recalls recently dismissing a job candidate who kept glancing at his BlackBerry while she spoke with him.

"When you're an interviewer, you're looking for somebody who wants to find a job," she said. "It's a nonverbal indicator of what's to come. I was very polite and professional and told him, `Obviously, this is not your top priority. My time is very valuable to me. I don't feel as if it's as important to you as it is to me.'"

Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and an author of The Etiquette Advantage of Business, said people don't intentionally use their cell phones or gadgets to be rude. But many get lost in their work - or the technology - and often ignore their surroundings.

"They don't think about how it affects other people," said Post, who has been giving more seminars on technology etiquette in the workplace.

At Enterprise Rent-a-Car, more regional managers are giving lessons in cell phone etiquette to entry-level employees as part of their customer service training. Clearly prohibited: Workers answering their cell phones while helping a customer.

The growth in providing lessons has come in the past two years as cell phones have increasingly become the primary communications tool for Enterprise workers, said spokeswoman Lisa Martini.

This month, Deussen Global Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in New York, established guidelines for "21st century common courtesy." The list includes no BlackBerry or texting in meetings and requires employees to set cell phones on vibrate mode in meetings and in the office.

For clients, the firm created a slide presentation that resembles the "Shh, please silence your cell phones and pagers" announcement at movie theaters.

"We're all trying to do our jobs and want to do the best work for our clients. It's better if we have their complete attention," said Theresa Bertrand, an account supervisor at Deussen. "I think they appreciate it."

Employers, workers and management experts agree that technology such as e-mail, cell phones and portable devices has helped them communicate faster and increase productivity. But over time, some employers and workplace experts argue, technology has gotten one step ahead of its users.

About two-thirds of 1,400 chief information officers surveyed by Robert Half Technology in 2004 said violations in "tech etiquette" are increasing. Leaving a cell phone ringer on and sending instant messages and e-mails in meetings were among the top technology-related pet peeves, according to the survey.

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