Etiquette's electronic frontier

Cellphones, iPods, PDAs, and other devices may raise productivity, but they also can raise the ire of coworkers.

As a publicist in New York, Drew Tybus knows the importance of keeping in touch with business contacts. But that need to connect reached an extreme this month when he attended a luncheon for 60 publicists. Scanning the room during a panel discussion, he made a startling observation: "Nobody was looking at this guy when he was talking," Mr. Tybus says. "People were typing away on their BlackBerrys. Others were using the stylus for their Palm Pilots. They were sending e-mails about work at the same time that they were trying to get more information from the people who were speaking."

Some might call this multitasking. Others regard it as just plain rude. Either way, it's a sign of the electronic times, raising questions about workplace behavior in a wired world. From iPods to hand-held devices, cellphones, and e-mail, "tech-etiquette" remains an unresolved issue for many bosses and workers.

"Each of these things is both a blessing and a detriment," says Elizabeth Scofield, who teaches classes in etiquette to businesses and students in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's a question of perspective."

From the perspective of executives polled by Robert Half Technology, challenges exist. Two-thirds say that breaches in tech-etiquette are increasing. Nearly 90 percent think it is inappropriate to leave a cellphone ringer on during a business meeting, while 80 percent say sending instant messages or e-mail in meetings is a definite "don't." Two-thirds consider it poor etiquette to use personal computers during these sessions.

Perhaps the biggest etiquette offenders, hand-held devices allow users to check e-mail, search the Web, send text messages, and make phone calls. These gadgets "are causing normally polite people to commit egregious breaches of decorum," says Peter Handal, chairman of Dale Carnegie Training. "At meetings, people tend to get really annoyed by the use of BlackBerrys. I often see other people rolling their eyes."

E-mail and instant messages can also produce etiquette blunders. Without the subtle clues of the spoken word, such as vocal tone and body language, they can be misinterpreted, creating misunderstandings and even inadvertent insults.

"People tend to treat e-mail like conversation," Mr. Handal says. "They don't give it the kind of thought that something in writing should have. If you're trying to be funny and you forget to put in the little smiley face, people could take it the wrong way."

Executives at Robert Half Technology suggest saving sensitive topics for face-to-face meetings, when others can be sure of your intended meaning. They caution against using high-tech shorthand in e-mail and instant messages, such as BTW (by the way) and IMO (in my opinion). Only use these if you are sure every recipient understands them. Take photos on a camera phone only if there is a business need and colleagues have given permission.

For many workers, an iPod, loaded with favorite music, is a welcome way to block out distractions. But to a boss trying to get an employee's attention, those white ear buds can represent a barrier.

"Sometimes they don't hear their telephones ringing," says Lee Rosen, president of Rosen Law Firm in Raleigh, N.C. "That can be a problem. But all in all, the music adds to their ability to be productive far more than it detracts from it." Because his employees work in cubicles in an open room, many use iPods or play music through their computer to create an isolated environment. He takes the approach that they should do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Ms. Scofield, director of the performing arts center at Lehigh University, also defends the use of iPods, saying, "It may look unprofessional, but there are many things people do that are unprofessional. I don't think iPods are annoyances. It's not like walking around with a giant boom box."

Wireless headsets require another kind of courtesy in offices, says Eric Dickerson, managing partner at Kaye Bassman International in Plano, Texas. Explaining that he often wears a cellphone headset in one ear and a wireless headset on his landline phone in the other ear, he says, "The first question when you greet someone in our office is, 'Are you on the phone?' They don't know, with wireless headsets."

While some companies spell out tech-etiquette rules in writing, most do not. Mr. Dickerson, who tries to avoid creating too many regulations, says, "One policy leads to another policy, which leads to an exemption to that policy. We just try to treat each other with respect."

At the beginning of a meeting, he explains, the person in charge might tell the group, "I need everyone's undivided attention. We need everything turned off. We need your total focus."

In cases where an employee is expecting an important call during a meeting, the proper etiquette is to let the person in charge of the meeting know in advance, Dickerson says. "When the call arrives, you take it, you leave the room so you won't be a distraction, and then you come back."

If cellphones do ring in meetings in other firms, the effect can go beyond rudeness to embarrassment for the owner.

Young women in particular tend to keep their ringers turned on, says Jeryldine Tully, a publications director in St. Louis. "During meetings and other inopportune times, you get the theme from 'Sex and the City' or some other club tune blasting out of their purse."

Dickerson recalls an incident when a cellphone rang just after a meeting ended. The ringer featured a line from the movie "Wedding Crashers," in which a young woman says, "I love you, don't ever leave me, because I'll find you." To avoid situations like this, he says, "Keeping your phone on mute is a very good thing. Vibrate is a wonderful function."

Bosses, too, can be guilty of lapses in tech-etiquette. Scofield outlines a possible scenario in which a manager meets with an employee. "If, as the boss, I'm getting little beeps from my computer that tell me I have an e-mail, or I'm getting little buzzing noises on my BlackBerry, or my cellphone is ringing or buzzing, my eyes will stray in those directions," she says. Those distractions can interrupt the conversation and send subtle signals about the boss's regard - or lack of regard - for the worker.

Handal cautions that high-tech gadgets can also make users seem indifferent, adding to etiquette problems. "Because people tend to become self-contained with a lot of these technologies, such as iPods, they give the impression to others in the workplace that they don't care about them. They get isolated."

Not all employers and workers face these tech-etiquette challenges. Tybus, whose roommates work at "very corporate" companies, including a bank, has occasionally called them on their cellphones. They explain that they can't talk on the cellphone at their desk or in their office. While they express amazement that he can use a BlackBerry and listen to music all day, he tells them, "It's so uptight for you. How do you live?"

As increasingly sophisticated technology extends its reach everywhere, Handal offers this advice to avoid tech-etiquette blunders: "Embrace all the new technologies, but keep focused on the people around you, whether it's your boss, your co-workers, or your customers. Technology is a great tool to help you get to the people. But even in this wired world, you need to have the personal touch."

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