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Ask the Etiquette Expert: 8 Rules for Texting at Work

An employee vexed by a co-worker's texting needs to politely speak up or back off.
Ask the Etiquette Expert: 8 Rules for Texting at Work
Image credit: Tetra Images | Getty Images

Dear Jacqueline,

I have an employee who always seems to be texting on her personal phone. She keeps it beside her computer and checks it every few minutes. It looks like she’s more interested in her social life and I feel it’s unfair to all of us in the office who work hard and stay focused. What are your recommendations about excessive texting in the office? How do I put this to an end?

Best regards, Tired of Texts

Dear Tired,

Your problem is not uncommon, I often hear complaints about excessive texting at work and socially. Texting has become a normal part of our daily lexicon, often to the point where we prefer to text rather than actually speak to people. In fact, a Gallup poll reported that texting is a dominant way Americans under 50 communicate.

The problem is, there isn’t a lot of guidance around what, for most people, is a casual form of communication. Many employee manuals and orientations don’t cover texting at work, which makes knowing what to do or not to do all the more stressful.

If this person’s behavior is disruptive to your work, you must address the issue. Make sure you pull this employee aside and speak with her in private. You can say something like, “Jill, I want you to be as productive as possible while you’re here at work, so I have to ask you to put your phone away. I’ve noticed that you’ve been texting more frequently lately and it’s becoming a distraction.”

Communication is key. Give your employee an opportunity to state her case. Who knows, she may be dealing with a sick child at home or some personal matters that require much of her attention. Let her know that you care about her success and will work with her to make sure she has enough time to handle these issues without interfering with her day-to-day responsibilities. Be sure to document your conversation just in case she refuses to stop this behavior and you have to take more drastic measures in the future.

Otherwise, if you do nothing, it sends a message to other workers that this type of behavior is acceptable, and can ultimately be counterproductive to your company’s success. Establish some company guidelines around texting. Here are some suggestions:

1. Keep it brief.

Texting is an interruption and can lead to an addiction-like compulsion. According to W. Chris Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution, receiving a text releases a surge of dopamine into the brain. “There is a lot of reward and addictive types of behavior that go along with their phones. [Teens] get such a powerful dopamine response that their body becomes conditioned to wanting more of that.” The more texts you send, the more you receive. Those times when you need to text while at work, keep it brief. Only text when response time is important.

Related: Trigger These 4 Key Brain Chemicals for Happier Workers

2. Don’t text anything you wouldn’t want posted in your company newsletter.

If you send or receive a text from a company-owned device or over the company network, the message is considered company domain. Depending on the circumstances, you can get fired for sending what you assume to be a private email or text if it alludes to some criminal activity, some act against the employer or coworkers, unlawful harassment or bullying. Never bad-mouth the boss or your peers and read and re-read your text before hitting “send.”

Related: 4 Ways to Keep Employees Focused on Work and Not Their Phones

3. Ask permission.

Don’t assume that everyone likes to communicate the same way. If you use your phone for work purposes, ask permission before sending texts to clients, customers and coworkers. Some people find the communication intrusive instead of imperative.

4. Take texting breaks.

It can be difficult to corral the urge to check messages once that pattern has been established, especially since we keep our cell phones near us at all times. In 2015, Deloitte's Global mobile consumer survey found that Americans collectively check their phones 46 times a day, with those ages 18-24 checking 75 times, those ages 25-34 looking 50 times, and those 35-44 checking 35 times a day. Leave the phone in a purse or drawer, out of sight and reach, or set dedicated times for taking breaks and checking messages.

Related: 5 Facts About Communication in the Workplace You Need to Know

5. Use other methods of communication.

Texting is most effective when you require a quick response or if you share a key piece of information. It’s not meant for hashing out complicated situations or discussing details or confidential matters. If it takes more than three text messages to answer a question, pick up the phone instead.

Related: Can Distractions Actually Boost Productivity in the Workplace?

6. Reply promptly.

Texting is much faster (and oftentimes more convenient) than email. If someone sends a text to you, they most likely want a speedy reply. Respond accordingly.

7. Spell and punctuate properly.

In general, it’s okay to use common abbreviations like FYI, BTW, and Thank U, but it’s still important to make sure your spelling is correct. Your company brand could be at stake if you don’t pay attention to the details.

Related: 10 Ways Even Introverts Can Make Friends at Work

8. Eliminate the emoticons.

Emoticons are fine when communicating with a friend or family member. They are not appropriate for customers and clients who keep you employed.

It doesn’t matter how powerful or accomplished you are, or whether you are a line-level employee or the boss, use your best judgment and keep your text messages clean and professional.

If you have a business etiquette question for Jacqueline, email her at Jackie@EtiquetteExpert.com.

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