Poor E-Mail, Text Manners Could Create Problems

By Reuters  |  Posted 06-12-2009 Print Email
If you didn't think bad communications etiquette could harm you or your organization, just look at what happened when a government coup took place in New York.

A political coup in New York's statehouse can be traced back to an incident in which a top lawmaker so enraged a wealthy backer by peering at e-mails on his BlackBerry that his patron engineered his ouster.

One of the newer forms of poor office etiquette -- paying more attention to a hand-held device than to a conversation or business meeting -- happens so frequently that businesses are complaining it upsets workplaces, wastes time and costs money.

"It happens all the time, and it's definitely getting worse," said Jane Wesman, a public relations executive and author of "Dive Right In -- The Sharks Won't Bite."

"It's become an addiction," she said.

A third of more than 5,000 respondents said they often check their e-mails during meetings, according to a March poll by Yahoo! HotJobs, an online jobs board.

Such habits have their price, said Tom Musbach, senior managing editor of Yahoo! HotJobs.

"Things like BlackBerries fragment our attention span, and that can lead to lost productivity and wasted dollars because people aren't focused on their work, absolutely," he said.


Reprimanded for Bad Manners

In other Yahoo! HotJobs research, nearly a fifth of respondents said they had been reprimanded for showing bad manners with a wireless device. Yet even those who rail against such behavior admit to their own weakness.

"I catch myself driving in the car with my husband. He's talking to me and I'm downloading my e-mails," said Wesman. "You can't help yourself. There's this need to know what's going on."

But the constant pursuit of an e-mail fix may be costly. Research shows such multi-tasking can take more time and result in more errors than does focusing on a single task at a time.

"We know that if you have a person attending to different things at the same time, they're not going to retain as much information as they would if they attended to that one thing," said Nathan Bowling, an expert in workplace psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

"If you're attending to multiple things at the same time, you often times don't learn anything," he said.

Then there's the risk of making someone really mad.

In the New York state political coup, billionaire businessman Tom Golisano said he grew angry after meeting this spring with state Democratic majority leader Malcolm Smith, who paid more attention to his BlackBerry than to issues at hand.

"I thought that was very rude," Golisano told statehouse reporters. Golisano is known for hefty campaign contributions and for funding his own unsuccessful bids for governor.

Irked by Smith's behavior, Golisano reportedly approached other legislators, who this week voted out the Democratic leadership and voted in the Republicans.

"One should not play with one's BlackBerry (or anything else) when billionaires who have helped elect you have traveled to your office to talk to you," Henry Stern, former head of New York City's parks department, wrote on a Yonkers Tribune blog.


Counterproductive Work Behavior

People who text message when they should be doing something else are engaging in what Bowling called counter-productive work behavior, which also includes harassment, showing up late or playing endlessly on the Internet.

"Technology allows us to do counter-productive things that we weren't able to do 10, 20 or even five years ago," he said.

Business etiquette coach Barbara Pachter said there is a "learning curve" to new technology such as BlackBerries.

"We're still at that point where we're being rude," she said, adding that people's behavior is likely to improve in the next year or two. "We're just not there yet."

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