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My employee is constantly on her cellphone at work. How can I rein her in without looking unfair?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: July 9
  • Published July 9

Q: We've always let our employees make the occasional cellphone call without worrying too much about it — until now. The problem is "Cindy." While the other employees keep their cellphones in easy access, none of them abuse the privilege. Cindy, however, has her cellphone to her ear at least two to three times a day.

After a couple of weeks, I began asking Cindy "is that work or personal?" when I noticed her using the cellphone. Each time she answered casually saying, "my daughter needed to know …" or "my husband wanted to coordinate dinner." When I realized Cindy saw nothing wrong with how many times I caught her making personal cell calls, I told she was making too many. She challenged me, saying she never herself initiated the calls, that her husband and children knew not to call her at work and that I must be noticing that customers called her on her cell.

I told her to use the land line for customers and to limit her personal calls to emergencies and reminded her that both her husband and daughter had called in the last several days. After that her stories changed. At first it was a mother having a medical issue, then it was a son or daughter having a car emergency and yesterday it was her sister worried about her father going into the hospital. I put up with this for a month and then told her she needed to put her cell away during the workday and only take it out during her lunch.

When I went into the rest room the next day, I heard Cindy's voice and guessed that she was in one of the stalls. As soon as the door closed behind me, she stopped talking. I handled what had brought me into the rest room, washed my hands and left. During those three minutes, there was no noise from her stall. I suspect she took her cellphone into the rest room.

I talked to my partner and he says we need a tight policy prohibiting all personal cellphone use, as Cindy's the first to complain that we have "different rules for different employees" and she's our only minority employee. Do we really?

A: Don't punish your other employees because Cindy abuses the flexibility others have earned. Instead, issue a policy that says personal phone use needs to be limited to before and after the work day or at lunch time except for emergencies or an occasional call. Ask everyone to keep the occasional call brief, to change their ringtones to silent and to leave their cellphones in their purses or desk drawers. Add that you'll individually discuss the situation with anyone who abuses the policy's flexibility and that the great majority of employees have acted responsibility and thus don't need to radically change their behavior.

Personal cellphone use can be habit-forming for many, and Cindy may have reached "addict" status. In addition to her calls, you may notice that she makes multiple errors out of distraction. Given that you suspect Cindy has gone underground with her personal cell use, ask her to leave her phone in the car and let her know her personal calls can come through the main switchboard.

Flexibly worded policies do present risk, and your partner's right that your policy needs to fairly written and fairly applied to all. The word "occasional" may cause a problem, because it offers a loophole that Cindy may decide to drive a truck through. Cindy may also choose to document any coworker's cellphone use and grieve any discipline you later mete out.

Attorney Tom Owens III outlines both the legal risk and how employers can offer flexibility and minimize their risk. "Different standards applied to similarly situated employees can be a recipe for trouble. When some employees get the benefit of policy enforcement flexibility while others do not, employers must be prepared to demonstrate a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis for that difference in treatment. Consistent practices and good documentation are key."

Cindy's actions, provided you've fairly documented them, appear to have given you a non-discriminatory basis for reining her in — as long as you also counsel any other employee who abuses your flexibility.

Finally, as a manager, you need to set an example for your employees. Is your cell phone put away?

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