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Cell Phones and Work

Ninety-three percent of the US population owns or uses a cell phone, according to CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry. While cell phones have many benefits, they also present many drawbacks for employers.

Productivity. Cell phones can positively impact productivity because of their many capabilities including keeping employees connected at work. However, a recent Cornell University study concluded that having to listen to cell phone conversations significantly detracts from our cognitive performance. According to the Cornell Chronicle, “overhearing half a conversation – a ‘halfalogue’ – is more distracting than other kinds of conversations because we’re missing the other side of the story and so can’t predict the flow of the conversation.” Thus, employees who talk at length on their cell phones around their co-workers are most likely negatively impacting their co-workers’ work performance. 

Additionally, in this age of multi-tasking, numerous studies have demonstrated that trying to juggle phone calls and emails while working can negatively impact productivity. Rene Marois, neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University stated that, “We are under the impression that we have this brain that can do more than it often can … a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once.” Therefore, employees who check their email on their phones while in meetings, training seminars, and the like are most likely missing most of the information being given (a recent Yahoo! poll revealed that a third of more than 5,000 respondents said they often check their email during meetings).

Confidentiality.  Cell phones can increase the level of confidentiality because users can leave the room to take a call or can send a text instead of speaking. However, a recent Cellular News survey revealed that speaking too loudly remains the most irritating thing about people using cell phones in public. Therefore, cell phone users are much more likely to breach confidentiality because of speaking too loudly about business matters in public places. In addition to being easily overheard, cell phone calls can be easily intercepted by others. According to, “cell phone scanners make intercepting and monitoring of cellular telephone conversations as easy as pressing a button.” 

Safety. Cell phones increase personal safety by providing an easy means of contacting others during an emergency. However, a Human Factors and Ergonomics Society survey revealed that there are annually 2,500 cell-phone-related deaths and 300,000 injuries caused by cell phone distractions while driving. Even though it is against the law to do so, people continue to use hand-held cell phones while driving. Those who do use hands-free cell phones are still not reducing their risk of accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which concluded that hands-free devices do not reduce distraction or make cell phones any safer to use while driving. Additionally, a University of Utah study concluded that people who drive while talking on their cell phones are as impaired as drunk drivers with a blood alcohol level of .08%. Therefore, employees who talk on the phone while driving are putting themselves and their employers at risk.

Civility. Cell phone users can lend their phones to others or make calls on their behalf, which is a civil thing to do. However, according to Christine Pearson, professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, “Electronic devices lead to more incivility because of their powerful ability to claim our attention – no matter where we are or what we’re doing.” Indeed, reported that French president Nicolas Sarkozy was advised to behave in a more statesmanlike manner after being caught texting during an audience with the Pope and a meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister. Pearson considers taking calls, texting, and checking emails while talking with co-workers to be uncivil and damaging to our workplace relationships. Ultimately, it sends the message that the cell phone is more important than the co-worker. 

Employers can curb the loss of productivity, the breach of confidentiality, the threat to safety, and the lack of civility by creating some guidelines for their employees, such as:

  • Keep your distance from co-workers when talking on the phone.
  • Let phones go to voicemail and return calls once an hour.
  • No phones allowed at meetings.
  • Refrain from talking about business in public places.
  • Do not talk on the phone while driving, even on a hands-free device.
  • Avoid taking calls or texting when you’re already engaged in a face-to-face conversation.

Cell phones can be an asset and a liability at work. Employers who set guidelines for their employees’ use of cell phones will more than likely benefit from this tool than be harmed by it. 

Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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